North Africa, West Asia

Kingdom of arbitrary detention: how Saudi Arabia shuts down its most vocal critics

The institutionalised repression practiced by Saudi authorities is exposed by the fight led by one of the Kingdom’s most respected human rights organisations, the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA).

Alkarama Foundation
14 October 2016

Alkarama Foundation. All rights reserved.In 2016, Saudi Arabia unveiled “Vision 2030”, a plan for modernising the country within the next decade and weaning off its oil dependency.

The kingdom’s long-term project is headed by the Council for Economic and Development Affairs and aims at developing a “vibrant and fulfilled” life for its citizens and residents. However, the change envisioned leaves aside an important facet of human development, that of basic freedoms and rights.

Indeed, if Saudi Arabia wishes to present itself as a “pioneering global model of excellence, on all fronts”,[1]  much remains to be done in the ever regressive field of human rights.

Despite being twice elected as member of the Human Rights Council in 2009 and 2013 (for three year terms), Saudi Arabia has made no effort to significantly enhance the human rights situation. Indeed, the kingdom has shown extreme contempt for basic rights – especially civil and political – and has been mercilessly prosecuting those merely freely expressing their opinions, advocating greater civil freedoms and working towards an effective protection of their human rights.

The beginning of popular revolts in the Arab world in 2011, which also affected neighbouring countries, brought about an intensification of the repression of basic human rights in the kingdom.

Crackdown on civil society and political dissent in Saudi Arabia became institutionalised with a myriad of tools being developed to further silence peaceful dissident voices, such as the Law on Terrorism and its Financing of 2014, which defines inter alia “harming the reputation of the State and its standing” as a terrorist act.

Repression entrenched

The institutionalisation of repression of any dissent in Saudi Arabia has been illustrated by the authorities’ modus operandi used in the prosecution of individuals exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly.

It appears through cases documented by Alkarama and other human rights organisations, as well as those treated by the United Nations human rights mechanisms – in particular the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) through its Opinions – that a sequence of steps is usually followed by the authorities. The crackdown on basic rights and freedoms in the kingdom is led by the Ministry of Interior (MoI), under which several players operate, including the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution, the General Investigation Directorate or Mabahith and the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC).

Saudi Arabia does not have a Criminal Code, it leaves legal interpretation to the discretion of judges.

At the base of that repression lays the fact that Saudi Arabia does not have a Criminal Code, but leaves legal interpretation to the discretion of judges. This is in direct contravention to the principal tenet of criminal law that establishes that there is no crime and no punishment without a law prescribing it.

The absence of a Criminal Code gives enormous leeway and discretionary powers to the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution and, in practice, to the Ministry of Interior to retroactively qualify acts as crimes. Testimonies gathered by Alkarama have shown that the lack of legal certainty has led to victims being charged with vague crimes such as “questioning the integrity of officials” or “breaking allegiance to and disobeying the ruler.”

Individuals who have been charged with committing such ill-defined crimes as a result of the exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, i.e. who have protested or criticised the government’s repression of demonstrations or documented human rights violations, have all suffered reprisals and prosecution.

The road leading to the trial usually follows a recurring path.

Firstly, security forces and intelligence officers of the Mabahith, under the command of the Ministry of Interior, arrest or summon individuals without informing them of the reasons for their arrest or showing them a warrant. The person is then detained without access to a lawyer and is often interrogated under torture. The person cannot challenge the lawfulness of his detention before a judicial authority, as prisoners of conscience are not afforded this right.

Despite the possibility of reporting torture and ill-treatment to the Saudi Board of Grievances – an administrative court that has jurisdiction over claims of misconduct by the administrative authorities –, allegations often remain ink on paper and are never properly investigated. Yet, if they are, the MoI has the last word and can choose not to implement the decisions of the Board of Grievances, therefore rendering it ineffective as a complaint mechanism.

Secret trials and unfair laws

Most prisoners of conscience and political detainees are put on trial before the Specialised Criminal Court, which tries cases of terrorism and State security. The Court, established in 2008, is an exceptional jurisdiction as it is not composed of independent judges, but of a panel nominated directly by the Ministry of Interior.

Hearings before the Specialised Criminal Court are often held in secret and victims are denied access to their criminal files.

Hearings before this Court are often held in secret and victims are denied access to their criminal files. The Court has also never made its rules and procedures public and defendants have sometimes been denied access to their own hearings.

Furthermore, lawyers defending cases before the SCC can be barred from entering the courtroom and are often pressured and threatened to resign from the case, as they are themselves considered “disloyal to the State” for defending such cases.

Political dissent and free expression have further been targeted by the Anti-terrorism Law of 2014, promulgated by Royal Decree 16, which provides for a vaguely worded definition of terrorism and is in practice used to repress free speech.

The law gives broad powers to the executive and deprives the accused of his due process rights. Indeed, the 2014 Law allows the Ministry of Interior to order the arrest of an individual without a warrant and raises the limit of pre-trial detention from six to twelve months. 

From champion to victim, the case of ACPRA

To protect the victims targeted by this institutionalised system of oppression, human rights defenders and civil society actors have seized UN human rights mechanisms, taken to the media or used their own platforms to condemn and report on these practices, but have more often than not, fallen victim to the same abuses.

In fact, the symbol of this systematic repression has become the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, also known as ACPRA, whose 11 members – all prominent human rights defenders – were all subjected to reprisals, including for their peaceful activism before ACPRA was ever established. The association was shut down in March 2013 and all of its members have faced lengthy prison sentences.

Established in 2009 to promote civil and political rights in the country and call for peaceful political reforms to safeguard the fundamental rights of Saudis, ACPRA peacefully advocated for a constitutional monarchy, a universally elected parliament, an independent judiciary and for the protection of fair trial rights in Saudi Arabia.

The organisation also reported on human rights violations, helped relatives of victims file complaints with the Board of Grievances and communicated cases of human rights violations to UN human rights mechanisms, such as the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and other Special Procedures.

They were all held incommunicado, some of them ill-treated and tortured during interrogations.

Because ACPRA was very vocal in its criticism of the Saudi authorities and the repression they exercised against dissident voices; the organisation was banned in 2013 and its members arrested and prosecuted. They were all held incommunicado, some of them ill-treated and tortured during interrogations.

Lastly, legal proceedings were lengthened due to the referral of their cases to the Specialised Criminal Court to prosecute them on the basis of the 2014 Law on Terrorism, long after their cases had already been heard by ordinary courts.

The members of ACPRA all faced broad and vaguely defined charges such as “insulting the judiciary”, “calling to break allegiance with the Minister of Interior”, “accusing the judiciary of being unable to deliver justice’, “communicating with international organisations in order to harm the image of the state” and “forming or joining an illegal organisation.”

In addition to three to fifteen years in prison, many of their sentences were also followed by extended travel bans. The majority of the members are currently in prison serving their sentences.

Committed to making civil and political rights a reality for future generations, co-founding member of ACPRA Mohammad Al Qahtani once said:

“If we go to prison, it is worth it, we have done whatever we can, [...] If everybody keeps their mouths shut, the situation will only go from bad to worse and I don’t want my kids to think I have failed hem in securing their fundamental rights.”

[1] King Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud, Vision 2030.

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