Appendix: Human Rights Watch Discussions with Officials of the Government of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, March 8-15, 2008
The Human Rights Commission of Saudi Arabia invited Human Rights Watch to visit Saudi Arabia from March 8 to 15, 2008, to discuss with government officials, prior to publication, four Human Rights Watch reports on aspects of the human rights situation in the kingdom, including this report. Human Rights Watch wishes to express its sincere appreciation to Shaikh Turki bin Khalid al-Sudairi, the Commission's president, and Dr. Zuhair al-Harithi, a board member, for their efforts to arrange and facilitate this dialogue, involving representatives and experts from eight ministries. This is the first time among countries in the Middle East and North Africa region that the government has engaged with us in open discussions at this level and on this scale regarding Human Rights Watch's findings and recommendations, and interpretations of law. In addition to ministerial experts, we met with 10 of the 18 members of the Commission's board, many of whom have held high positions in relevant ministries in the past.
On February 26 we had sent the Commission a full copy of this report in English and Arabic, in addition to copies of earlier written communications with Saudi ministries seeking clarification on particular cases, points of law, or policy.
During our discussions, several experts clarified that the testimony of a woman or that of a non-Muslim is generally admissible in criminal matters, although an adviser in the office of the minister of justice qualified this principle by pointing out that a woman's testimony would be given only half the weight of a man's testimony.
A former adviser to the minister of justice clarified that in cases of imprisonment for debt, it is up to the claimant to prove that the debtor possesses sufficient funds to satisfy the alleged debt before a judge can order that person to be held in custody (tahaffuz) pending trial.
Former and current Ministry of Justice officials were unable to specify the precise nature of crimes such as witchcraft, disobedience to the ruler, or sedition.
A representative of the Bureau for Investigation and Public Prosecution told Human Rights Watch that all communication between a detainee and his or her lawyer is confidential (see section on Right to Inform Others of One's Arrest). He further explained that all criminal charges against a suspect are supposed to be made in writing and at the beginning of the interrogation, which has to take place within 48 hours of arrest in cases of flagrante delicto, and within 24 hours of executing an arrest warrant in all other cases. He also explained that the legal basis for the detention of national security suspects without trial beyond the six-month maximum as stipulated in the Law of Criminal Procedure, is vested in the powers of the ruler, that is, the king: under Saudi interpretation of Sharia, the ruler is considered, in addition to his executive functions, to be a source of legislation as well as of adjudication.
This representative, as well as a former prosecutor, explained that, as a result of new decrees codifying drugs- and weapons-related crimes issued about two years ago, it is no longer the case that the judge adjudicates guilt and the ruler sets the punishment. Now the judge issues both a verdict and a sentence.
The officials and Human Rights Commission board members emphasized that Saudi Arabia is a developing country whose justice system continues to evolve. They made this point to explain that the Ministry of Interior continues to house the Bureau for Investigation and Public Prosecution since, as a new department, the prosecution office needed to project executive power. Our interlocutors expressed great hope in current efforts by the Council of Experts, a body that the Council of Ministers has tasked with drafting laws, to codify criminal law and to produce a written penal code. They could not set an expected timeframe for concluding this endeavor.