Activists handed long prison sentences or death penalty by court set up for terror cases
Bethan McKernan, Middle East correspondent – The Guardian
Since Mohammed bin Salman was appointed heir to the throne in 2017 there has been a crackdown on dissent. Photograph: Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/Kremlin/EPA
Saudi Arabia is using a secretive special court set up for terrorism-related cases to systematically prosecute human rights activists and other dissenting voices who defy the country’s absolute monarchy, a new report has found.
The human rights watchdog Amnesty International spent five years investigating 95 cases heard at the Specialised Criminal court (SCC) in Riyadh, concluding in a report published on Thursday that the court is routinely used as a weapon to silence criticism despite the kingdom’s recent attempts to cultivate a reformist image.
Since 2011, overly broad counter-terror and anti-cybercrime laws have been used by the SCC in unfair trials to hand down prison sentences of up to 30 years and in some cases the death penalty to human rights defenders, writers, economists, journalists, religious clerics, reformists and political activists, particularly from the country’s Shia minority, Amnesty said.
“Every stage of the SCC’s judicial process is tainted with human rights abuses, from the denial of access to a lawyer, to incommunicado detention, to convictions based solely on so-called confessions extracted through torture,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa regional director.
Saudi Arabia has embarked on a series of wide-reaching social reforms since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was appointed heir to the throne in 2017, allowing women to drive, curbing the powers of the country’s notorious morality police and granting women the freedom to travel without the permission of a male guardian.
The reforms, however, have been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, including the detention of high-profile activists such as Loujain al-Hathloul, who campaigned for women’s right to drive. Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has also faced renewed international scrutiny since the murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in 2018.
The SCC was established in 2008 to try individuals accused of crimes related to membership and support of al-Qaida. However, citing court documents, government statements and national legislation, as well as interviews with activists, lawyers and individuals close to the cases documented, Amnesty alleges that the court has morphed into a “mockery of justice” that targets freedom of speech and peaceful political activity.
One of the most disturbing findings shows that the SCC is heavily reliant on confessions extracted under torture conditions. At least 20 people have been sentenced to death, 17 of whom have been executed.
Hussein al-Rabi, a defendant in a mass trial of protesters from Saudi Arabia’s restive Shia-majority Qatif province, was executed in 2019 despite telling the court that his interrogator had hit him and threatened hanging and electric shocks unless he confessed. Rabi refused to do so, so the interrogator denied him food and water, leading to his hospitalisation.
“The presumption of innocence is not part of the Saudi Arabian judicial system,” said Taha al-Hajji, a lawyer who has represented many defendants before the SCC.
In response to Amnesty’s investigation, Saudi Arabia’s official human rights commission offered a summary of the relevant laws and court procedures but failed to address any of the individual cases raised.