August 10, 2009

Indefinite Detention

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior does not regularly make public how many persons are detained or imprisoned in the prisons belonging to the General Directorate for Investigations (mabahith). These prisons are separate from those run by the regular prison service. In July 2007, Agence France Press quoted Interior Minister Prince Nayef as saying that “9,000 people had been arrested during anti-terror operations over the past four years,” and that “Most had been released but 3,106 remained in custody.”[22] As noted above, in December 2007 the Ministry of Interior said it had released 1,500 detainees who had successfully completed their religious and psychological rehabilitation program, and was reported to be still holding some 1,700.[23] Since then, authorities have detained several hundred more persons.

Saudi Arabia has no penal code clearly setting out in law what is a criminal offense. In 2002, however, the government promulgated the country’s first Law of Criminal Procedure. Article 116 of the Law of Criminal Procedure gives the arrested person the right to “be promptly notified of the reasons for his arrest or detention;” the investigator (in Saudi Arabia, this is also the prosecutor) must inform the detainee of the charges “when the accused appears for the first time for an investigation,” which has to be within 48 hours from the time of his arrest (article 34). Article 114 provides that the detainee must be brought to trial or released within six months.

Human Rights Watch spoke to over two dozen families of mabahith detainees in 2006 and 2007, only two of whom reported that their relatives had received trials. According to the families, these two men had completed their sentences but remained in detention. One former detainee of the mabahith prison in the northern Juf province, arrested for his dissident views, said in November 2006, “There is a group of about 20 persons in Juf, arrested for acts of violence [related to national security], whose sentence has expired, but they have not been released.”[24]For all of the above, it was not clear whether Ministry of Interior officials or judges had issued these sentences.[25] In mid-2009 Human Rights Watch contacted six of the families again to learn whether their relatives had been scheduled for trial or had received sentences under the newly announced trials of 991 terrorism suspects. Two family members said their relatives had since been released; the five other families said their relatives remained in detention without charge or trial.

Relatives of the two released detainees had told Human Rights Watch in 2006 that the arrest of both persons was due to their having expressed opposition views rather than involvement in acts of violence. A relative of one of them said in December 2006 that he had been detained around December 2003 because he had telephoned the Islah satellite television station run by Saudi opposition figure Sa’d al-Faqih in London.[26] In June 2009 another family member told Human Rights Watch that this detainee had been released two years earlier, “after receiving a sentence of around two years.”[27] The prisoner did not receive written documentation of the sentence, and by the time of his release he would have spent over three years in prison. The other person released had been detained for publicly calling for the release of a relative, another nonviolent dissident.[28]

For five other detainees whose families Human Rights Watch reestablished contact with, nothing had changed since 2006. Two brothers from Abha, arrested in May 2004 and January 2005, have remained in prison without charge or trial, a relative told Human Rights Watch in June 2009. The relative said he had sent telexes to Ibrahim al-Muhanna, who works with the assistant minister for security affairs in the Ministry of Interior, requesting to know the reasons for the arrests, but that he had received no reply. The brother of another detainee also said that he had no update on that detainee’s status following his arrest in March 2006, allegedly for financing militants in Iraq. He could only confirm that the religious shaikhs of the Consultation Committees had visited his brother in Buraida mabahith prison recently. A relative of the fourth detainee told Human Rights Watch that authorities had still not charged or tried the detainee after holding him for one year at the mabahith’s ‘Ulaisha prison in Riyadh and almost five years in al-Ha’ir mabahith prison south of Riyadh thereafter. She said the only reason for his arrest known to her is that he had telephoned a neighbor who two months later appeared on a Most Wanted list issued by the Ministry of Interior and was later killed, presumably in clashes with security forces. She said that the religious shaikhs of the Consultation Committees spoke to her relative in prison. The brother of the fifth detainee, arrested in March 2004, said in June 2009 that no trial had taken place despite promises a high-ranking Ministry of Interior official in November 2005 made to the family.

On June 1, 2009, the legal team for mabahith detainee Dr. Saud Mukhtar al-Hashimi published a list of complaints of their detained client, who had started a hunger strike that day to protest, among other things, the failure to charge him or bring him to trial.[29] Human Rights Watch in February 2007 had criticized the arrest of al-Hashimi and others known for their engagement in political and legal reform.[30] Also among those arrested then was lawyer and former judge Sulaiman al-Rashudi, who reportedly planned to sue the Ministry of Interior on behalf of his clients whom the mabahith had detained for years without charge or trial and whom he had been prevented from meeting and representing. Al-Rashudi himself now remains in mabahith detention without charge for more than two years.

On July 14, 2009, the human rights organization Front Line Defenders said in a media statement that Walid Abu al-Khair, a rights activist and lawyer for al-Hashimi and fellow detainee Dr. Abd al-Rahman al-Shumairi, had faced official harassment to drop his case challenging his clients’ arbitrary detention (see below). Harassment included threats of imprisoning al-Khair unless he dropped the suit, made in a phone call to al-Khair’s brother on June 25 by a person who said he was from the Ministry of Interior. A person who visited al-Khair’s father issued similar threats around that time and other unknown persons stopped al-Khair’s car on July 10 making unspecified threats.[31]


The Plight of Detained Foreigners

The situation of detained foreigners is often even more difficult than that of detained Saudis, because of a lack of family visits and because their consular officers have not, to Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, visited their nationals in mabahith detention. At times, the mabahith has denied family visits, and at other times the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not grant visas to family members who wished to visit their detained relatives. Also, foreigners generally lack the informal access to Saudi decision-makers that Saudi families sometimes enjoy. However, foreign detainees, just as Saudis, do participate in discussions with religious shaikhs of the Consultation Committees.

A relative of a non-Saudi detainee imprisoned since August 2004 in different mabahith prisons, including Ruwais in Jeddah and Dhahban north of Jeddah, and in Abha and Riyadh prisons, said that they had tried to piece together the reasons for his arrest. They told Human Rights Watch that their detained family member, a nurse, had treated a Saudi man and sometime thereafter telephoned him to take up the Saudi man’s invitation to visit him, but that the mabahith had answered the phone call because this Saudi man had apparently been arrested for alleged involvement in “terrorist groups.” The mabahith then proceeded to arrest the nurse as well, who had been about to leave on vacation for his home country to visit his ailing mother. She died in November 2008, during her son’s fifth year in mabahith detention without charge or trial. The nurse was himself diagnosed with heart disease and hospitalized in January 2009, after losing around 20 kilograms within a few months, his relative said.[32]

We learned of another non-Saudi who has also been detained since June 2003 without charge or trial, and transferred between Dammam, Jubail, Ra’s Tannura, Ahsa, al-Ha’ir, and Dhahban mabahith prisons. Religious shaikhs, presumably from the Consultation Committees, visited him in detention, his relatives said.[33] According to his family, this detainee said that in Dammam he had been suspended by handcuffs; in al-Ha’ir prison subjected to loud music and sleep deprivation, beatings by a man with a long beard who looked like a “shaikh” and faced threats to his family by interrogators; and in Dhahban and al-Ha’ir prisons put in incommunicado solitary confinement twice after starting hunger strikes in June 2008 and January 2009 to demand his trial or release. His family added that the detainee said he had heard promises from his jailers for many years about being sent to trial “soon.” However, officials have not informed him of any charges against him and he has not had a court appearance.[34]

A third non-Saudi we learned about has been in Dammam mabahith prison since July 2007. He had moved to Saudi Arabia and worked as a barber until he met a religiously observant Saudi who convinced him that the profession of barber was not suitable for pious Muslims.[35]  At a dinner with this Saudi man, security forces arrested him and others present. His family, which was not with him in Saudi Arabia, learned from his Saudi sponsor that charges against him originally consisted of forgery of residence papers, since he had paid someone to transfer his employer sponsor after he stopped working as a barber. The family was not able to speak to him until eight months after his arrest, and not again for five months after that first communication, although they have been in regular communication every two weeks since November 2008. The detainee told them he is unaware of formal charges or an upcoming trial date.[36]

On April 28, 2009, the Yemeni HOOD human rights organization said that 74 Yemenis have been held in the Qasim province mabahith prison since 2005 without trial on suspicion of terrorism.[37] In July 2009, HOOD specified that an additional eight prisoners had received a trial, seven of whom were convicted and sentenced to periods between three months and four years in prison. All seven convicted prisoners remained in detention despite the expiry of their sentences, in addition to the eighth Yemeni, who remained detained despite a court having found him not guilty of the charges against him.[38]


Challenges to Indefinite Detention

Some families of detainees have submitted their relatives’ cases to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which can issue an opinion on an individual case (after asking governments for any relevant case information). The Working Group’s annual reports covering 2004-2008 show that it took up 71 cases of suspected arbitrary detention in Saudi Arabia, of which at least 25 related to detainees in mabahith prisons (based on a comparison of Human Rights Watch’s files with the names of detainees published by the Working Group, which does not, however, publish details of the cases). In those 25 cases, the Working Group ruled the detentions arbitrary. It is possible that the number of mabahith detainees in the Working Group’s caseloadis even higher.

In four other cases Human Rights Watch is aware of, relatives of detainees, their lawyer, or a released detainee sued the mabahith before the Board of Grievances, Saudi Arabia’s administrative court. In the two cases brought by relatives the board has ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor. The board, however, lacks the power to enforce its decisions, so these attempts to bring some measure of legal process to the mabahith’s detention practices have not led to the release of the detainees in question, nor have they had any practical effect on curtailing arbitrary arrests by the mabahith.

The Board of Grievances in August 2008 ruled in favor of Tamir Muhammad al-Matrudi, who sued the mabahith to release his son Imad, whom the mabahith had detained since his arrest on June 7, 2004. The court confirmed that the mabahith had held Imad al-Matrudi in their custody since that date without ever transferring him to trial. The court also noted in its verdict that the mabahith would remain free to continue its investigation and to collect evidence while Imad was not in their custody. The court dismissed pleas for more time from the lawyer for the mabahith, who argued that the agency had yet to provide him with any facts about the case. The verdict says that the court “ruled to annul the decision by the mabahith to refrain from implementing article 114 of the Law on Criminal Procedure,” passed in 2002, which stipulates that a detained person must be presented to court for trial or released within a maximum of six months after the date of arrest. In May 2009 the family contacted Human Rights Watch to complain that despite the court’s ruling 10 months earlier, the mabahith continued to detain Imad al-Matrudi.[39]

Similarly, in June 2009 Muhammad al-Husaini, the father of a mabahith detainee, pleaded with Human Rights Watch for help to release his son Majid, a Saudi citizen, after the Board of Grievances had ruled in April 2009 that he should be released. The mabahith had arrested Majid al-Husaini on August 1, 2002, at the age of 17. The father sued the mabahith on November 3, 2007, after getting no response to letters he sent to Assistant Minister of Interior for Security Affairs Prince Muhammad bin Nayef seeking his son’s release. In its 2009 verdict the board affirmed the “obligation of the sued party [the mabahith] to release the son of the plaintiff.”[40] The mabahith lawyer challenged the father’s standing as a plaintiff, saying he had no power of attorney from his son. However, the court referred to article 13 b) of the Law of the Board of Grievances, giving it jurisdiction over “violations of laws and regulations ... and abuse of power.” The court then proceeded to dismiss claims by the mabahith’s lawyer that

[the king] had, based on the provisions of the Sharia and the Basic Law of Governance, ... allowed investigative agencies (the General Investigations [mabahith]) to arrest suspects and to jail them in order to preserve security and to conduct criminal investigations because they are agencies that represent society and [are] the repository of public prosecutions and because they are tasked with preserving the safety of the country and its reputation outside its borders, so that it is allowed for these agencies ... to detain those shrouded in suspicion.

As in the case of Imad al-Matrudi, the mabahith disregarded the court’s verdict ordering the release of Majid al-Husaini, who remains in detention as of this writing.[41]


In the latest case, the Board of Grievances in Riyadh on June 22, 2009 accepted to hear a lawsuit Walid Abu al-Khair filed on behalf of his client, Dr. Abd al-Rahman al-Shumairi, against the Ministry of Interior alleging that the mabahith were detaining al-Shumairi in excess of the six-month legal limit on pretrial detention and also had been holding him in solitary confinement for two and a half years while Saudi law allows only sixty days.[42] The Board scheduled the initial court session for October 20, 2009.[43]

In 2006 a released detainee had sued the mabahith for wrongful imprisonment in connection with a month-and-a-half’s detention in early 2003 without charge in ‘Ulaisha prison and another detention in October 2003, apparently intended to prevent him from participating in a demonstration supported by the London-based Saudi opposition figure Sa’d al-Faqih. The Board of Grievances then, too, accepted the case, but in 2006 and 2007 continued to grant the mabahith time for preparation of its defense, and the case was still in progress during 2008; Human Rights Watch has not since been able to determine whether the case has come to resolution.

[22] “Saudi Arabia Foils 180 ‘Terror’ Attacks Since 2003,” Agence France Press, July 2, 2007.

[23] Glen Carey, "Saudis Battle Bin Laden's Jihad With 150 Clerics, Art Classes,"Bloomberg.

[24] Detention without a legal basis, such as detention beyond the expiry of a sentence, is one of three types of detention the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention classifies as arbitrary.

[25] Saudi Interior Ministry officials traditionally imposed sentences on persons convicted of drugs or firearms offenses without putting them on trial. This practice was supposed to stop with the introduction of the Law of Criminal Procedure in 2002, but continues in isolated cases. Human Rights Watch interview with (name withheld), Dammam, December 18, 2006. The interviewee produced a court verdict convicting him of drugs possession. The verdict left sentencing to the “ruler.”

[26] Al-Faqih reportedly urged public demonstrations against the Saudi regime through his satellite channel.

[27] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with (name withheld), June 9, 2009.

[28] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with (name withheld), November 29, 2006.

[29] Human Rights Watch email communication with one of the defense lawyers, June 6, 2009.

[30] See “Saudi Arabia: Free Detained Advocates of Reform: Secret Police Arrests 7 Prominent Reformers in Replay of Events in 2004,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 7, 2007,

[31] “Saudi Arabia – Increasing Threats and Harassment Against Human Rights Defender, Mr Waleed Sami Abu-Alkhair,” Front Line Defenders, July 14, 2009, (accessed July 28, 2009).

[32] Human Rights Watch interview with family members, June 2009. When names of relatives and other potentially identifying data (such as locations and exact dates of interviews) are withheld in this report it is at the persons’ request and because they fear negative repercussions against their detained family member if their contact with human rights organizations became known.

[33] Human Rights Watch interview with the family of the detainee, January 2009.

[34] Human Rights Watch interview with the family of the detainee, January 2009.

[35] Human Rights Watch interview with the family of the detainee, May 2009.

[36] Human Rights Watch interview with the family of the detainee, May 2009.

[37] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with HOOD official, San’a, April 2009.

[38] Human Rights Watch interview with HOOD official, San’a, July 10, 2009.

[39] Board of Grievances verdict number 105/Dal/Alif/7, dated August 20, 2008. Verdict on file with Human Rights Watch.

[40] Board of Grievances verdict number 7/Dal/Alif/2 dated April 18, 2009. Verdict on file with Human Rights Watch.

[41] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Muhammad al-Husaini, June 2009.

[42] Walid Sami Muhammad Abu al-Khair, on behalf of Dr. Abd al-Rahman al-Shumairi, “Charge Sheet, File Number 2273/1/Qaf,” Board of Grievances, Riyadh, June 22, 2009.

[43] Human Rights Watch email communication with member of Shumairi’s defense team, July 26, 2009.