Saudi Arabia’s drive to counter terrorism has become a convenient chimera to support crackdowns on legitimate public dissent and political or social activism of any kind, and the campaign has turned into an indiscriminate tool wielded to stigmatize critics of the state as terrorists. Those are our conclusions based on research and two comprehensive visits to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by one of us, Ben Emmerson, while he was serving as Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights While Countering Terrorism, an independent expert appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council. The findings are outlined in detail in a country report issued last week with co-author, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, his successor as Special Rapporteur.
While expressing gratitude for the Kingdom’s transparency and courteous, constructive and cooperative approach during the two visits, the report articulates grave and sustained concerns about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, and makes clear that Saudi Arabia’s practices are inconsistent with its treaty obligations. The results call for clear and compelling changes, all the more because this state occupies a seat on the Human Rights Council.
We apply both international human rights and humanitarian law to assess Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, and find that both bodies of law apply to the country’s recent extra-territorial operations in Syria and Yemen.
The Report pays particular attention to Saudi Arabia’s counter-terrorism legislation, the most significant of which is the Law of Terrorism Crimes and its Financing, which was approved by the King in December 2013 and entered into force on Feb. 1, 2014. Interior Ministry regulations issued on March 7, 2014, extended the counter-terrorism law’s definition of terrorism by adding to the list of acts classed as terrorism. On Oct. 31, 2017, the Saudi Council of Ministers adopted a further Law on Combating Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing, which replaced the 2014 framework. This new law transfers extensive powers from the Interior Ministry (which was reorganized in 2017) to the newly established Public Prosecution and Presidency of State Security, both of which report directly to the King.
We are particularly concerned at the wide and nefarious definition of terrorism contained in Saudi Arabia’s domestic legislation. The 2014 law had a very broad definition of terrorist crimes. It encompassed any act “directly or indirectly intended to disturb the public order of the state, or to destabilize the security of society, or the stability of the state, or to expose its national unity to danger, or to suspend the basic law of governance or some of its articles, or to insult the reputation of the state or its standing, or to inflict damage upon one of its public utilities or its natural resources.”
The report of the Special Rapporteur notes that:
Anyone, whether Saudi Arabian or a foreign national, whether inside the country or abroad, who is accused of such conduct could be prosecuted as a “terrorist” inside Saudi Arabia. This included those who attempted to “change the ruling system in the Kingdom” or “harmed the interests, economy, and national and social security of the Kingdom.” Under such a broad definition, anyone challenging the authority or policies of the state could qualify as a terrorist.
The Interior Ministry regulations, issued on March 7, 2014, extended the counter-terrorism law’s already overly broad definition of terrorism to include such acts as “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.” The definition also included anyone who had “contact or correspondence with any groups, currents [of thought], or individuals hostile to the Kingdom;” anyone “seeking to shake the social fabric or national cohesion, or calling, participating, promoting, or inciting sit-ins, protests, meetings, or group statements in any form;” and anyone “who harms the unity or stability of the Kingdom by any means.”
The Ministry’s guidance states that anyone could be considered as committing an act of terrorism by “attending conferences, seminars, or meetings inside or outside [the Kingdom] targeting the security of society, or sowing discord in society;” as well as those “inciting or making countries, committees, or international organizations antagonistic to the Kingdom.”
We are deeply concerned that the definition of terrorism in the 2014 Law on Counter Terrorism and its Financing is overly broad and fails to comply with international human rights standards. The concept of terrorism should be confined to acts or threats of violence committed for political, ideological, religious, or other motives, aimed at spreading fear among the population — or sections of it — to coerce a government or international organization to take — or refrain from taking — any action.
The 2014 law criminalizes a wide spectrum of acts of peaceful expression, opinion, assembly, and association, as well as freedom of thought and religion. This has a seriously restrictive impact on civil society, as almost any non-governmental political action can be criminalized as an act of terrorism.
The report also addresses a number of other substantive concerns about human rights protections in Saudi Arabia, including the systematic use of counter-terrorism law to stifle dissent. Human rights defenders, religious figures, writers, journalists, academics, and civic activists have all been targeted by counter-terrorism law in Saudi Arabia. We are deeply concerned at a pattern of systematic repression in the country’s Eastern Province, where the majority Shi’a population resides.
The concept of a fair trial in terrorism cases remains highly fraught and is not implemented in practice. Examples include a lack of habeas corpus guarantees; trials proceeding in secret and/or in the absence of defense lawyers; and trials in absentia with no effective defense.
The visits confirmed earlier, broadly consistent reports of torture and the ill-treatment of detainees; arbitrary arrests and detention; violations of the right to independent legal counsel in detention (a key protection against abuse); the absence of genuinely independent medical examinations of suspects alleging torture; the practice of holding suspects incommunicado or in secret detention; the admission of evidence obtained under torture in breach of Saudi Arabia’s obligations under Article 15 of the Convention against Torture; and executions following manifestly unfair trials.
Saudi Arabia’s failure to provide minimum procedural safeguards during detention and interrogation and its judicial practice of admitting coerced confessions into evidence strongly suggest that these practices are officially endorsed. The situation in Saudi Arabia amounts to a systematic and flagrant denial of justice in this regard.
The report also takes a close look at the use of the death penalty in terrorism-related trials. We are deeply concerned at the use and misuse of the death penalty in cases where fair trial is not guaranteed, including against minors. We are blunt in our assessment and must be deeply critical of the state’s practices.
The circumstances surrounding the execution of the death penalty can constitute cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment or even torture. The methods of execution employed in Saudi Arabia include beheadings (by a swordsman) followed by crucifixion – the public display of the body. Stoning to death and execution by firing squad are also commonplace. Sometimes the individual’s hands and legs may be amputated following their execution by beheading, and the families may be denied access to the deceased’s body. People are executed in this way not only for grave crimes of violence, but for the so-called “crimes” of adultery, apostasy, witchcraft, and sorcery.
The Special Rapporteur considers that Saudi Arabia’s use of the death penalty is archaic, inhumane and degrading, not only to the person who is executed but to all who contribute to it and those who take part as spectators. It demeans and degrades the people of Saudi Arabia as a whole.
The report concludes by observing that:
When Saudi Arabia presented its candidature for membership of the Human Rights Council, it pledged to commit itself to the highest standards of human rights protection. The picture that emerges from this report casts doubt upon whether it was wise for Saudi Arabia to be admitted to the council, and threatens to undermine the authority of the council itself in the eyes of the world. The special rapporteur accordingly calls upon Saudi Arabia to demonstrate, through concrete measures, that it genuinely intends in the future to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights,” and to comply with the commitments it made in March 2016 when putting itself forward as a candidate to [the] Human Rights Council.
Photo by Abid Katib/Getty Images.