(Beirut) – Saudi authorities should immediately release two citizens held without charge for two years because of their religious beliefs, Human Rights Watch said today. Officials arrested Sultan al-`Anzi, 33, and Sa`ud al-`Anzi, 35, on May 14, 2012, and have not responded to multiple requests from Human Rights Watch and an organization for the Ahmadiyya Muslim religious group for information on their whereabouts and condition.
Activists with knowledge of the case say that the two men had adopted the Ahmadiyya interpretation of Islam. Saudi religious authorities encouraged them to abandon their belief, and three months later, officials detained them. Human Rights Watch wrote to King Abdullah on August 13, 2012, urging him to order the men’s release, but received no response.
“Not only have Saudi authorities interfered with the personal beliefs of these two men, but they’ve left them sitting in jail for two years in legal limbo with no end in sight,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The kingdom’s repression of religious dissidents stains its human rights record.”
Saudi authorities detained the men in the northern city of `Ar`ar on an arrest warrant issued by the governorate that specified the accusation of apostasy, a person who saw the warrant told Human Rights Watch. On May 14, 2012, the day of the arrest, investigators from the prosecution service questioned the two men individually about their Ahmadiyya beliefs. Four days later, investigators questioned the men again, and prosecutors then told each of the men that they were charging them with apostasy, another person with knowledge of the case told Human Rights Watch.
Under Saudi Arabia’s legal system, which seeks to apply its own strict brand of Islamic law, the penalty for apostasy is death. Ahmadiyya activists told Human Rights Watch that they have had no contact with the two men since their arrest, and do not know their whereabouts or condition. According to the Saudi Interior Ministry’s online prisoner database, al-Nafedhah, both men are currently in detention, and their cases carry the status “under processing to move to bureau of investigation,” meaning that authorities have not formally charged them.
By holding the two men for two years without charge, Saudi officials have apparently violated the kingdom’s criminal procedure law, Human Rights Watch said. The law requires prosecutors to charge or release suspects within six months of detention.
Freedom of belief is a basic right, inscribed in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as article 30 of the Arab Charter of Human Rights, a legally binding treaty to which Saudi Arabia acceded in 2009.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which separately highlighted the case of the Ahmadiyya converts at a January 2014 US Congressional hearing, has recommended Saudi Arabia as a “country of particular concern” in its 2014 annual report, stating that: “The government privileges its own interpretation of Sunni Islam over all other interpretations. It also has arrested individuals for dissent, apostasy, blasphemy, and sorcery.” Human Rights Watch has documented long-term official discrimination against Saudi Isma’ili and Twelver Shia citizens.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is an Islamic religious movement founded in India in the late nineteenth century. Adherents follow the teachings of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, a Muslim figure from India whom adherents believe to be the awaited Islamic messiah or mehdi. They believe Ahmad was sent “to end religious wars, condemn bloodshed and reinstitute morality, justice and peace.”
Ahmadiyya adherents are concentrated in South Asia, West Africa, East Africa, and Indonesia. There are no accurate figures for the number in Saudi Arabia. Human Rights Watch wrote to King Abdullah in January 2007, urging him to halt a nationwide campaign to round up and deport foreign followers of the Ahmadiyya faith merely because of their belief. Human Rights Watch documented, during that campaign, arrests of 56 non-Saudi followers of the Ahmadiyya faith, including infants and young children, and deportation of at least eight of them to India and Pakistan.
“Saudi Arabia needs to stop policing people’s personal beliefs,” Whitson said. “King Abdullah has won acclaim for preaching religious tolerance abroad, but there apparently is no room for tolerance inside his own country.”