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Saudi Arabia: Unveil the Justice System

Saudi Arabia should open up its highly secretive justice system and end practices that deny fundamental due-process rights to criminal suspects, Human Rights Watch said today. Prolonged solitary confinement, confessions, and secret trials are regular features of the Saudi justice system.

Last week, news emerged that seven Westerners-five Britons, one Canadian, and one Belgian-were tried in secret and sentenced for a series of bombings in Saudi Arabia without the knowledge of their families, lawyers, and governments. The sentences ranged from eight years to the death penalty. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office told Human Rights Watch on April 26, and again on April 29, that it could not confirm or deny the reports, emphasizing that there was "an ongoing judicial process" without providing further details. The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs told Human Rights Watch on April 26 that it was seeking official confirmation from Saudi authorities that William Sampson, the Canadian defendant, was sentenced to death in a secret trial. On April 29, the department still had not received confirmation.

"Something is terribly wrong with the administration of justice in Saudi Arabia," said Hanny Megally, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. "In a fair and transparent judicial system, it should not be a mystery whether trials have taken place or if defendants have been sentenced."

Human Rights Watch has learned that one of the seven defendants, James Cottle, a fifty-one-year-old British citizen, was secretly tried in February 2002 and sentenced to eighteen years in prison, according to information that the British government provided to his family on April 26. Cottle was arrested in June 2001, held in solitary confinement until last month, and has not been permitted to communicate with his family. His videotaped "confession" was aired on Saudi television in August 2001 (see below).

Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Bill Graham told reporters on April 26 that he could not comment on the reported death sentence for Canadian defendant William Sampson. He said that he had requested information from the Saudi ambassador to Canada but "as to [sic] this date he has not been able to give me any official confirmation of any single thing in respect of this case." Sampson was shown "confessing" to his involvement in the bombings on Saudi television in February 2001 (see below).

The Guardian (London) reported on April 29 that the jailed Britons were only informed of the judgments when their Saudi lawyers visited them on April 28. Citing sources in Riyadh, the paper said that the defendants "were not represented by lawyers at the hearing, which took place last October [2001]," and that the men "were not aware that they were appearing in court."

The seven men were arrested on suspicion of carrying out a series of car bombings and other explosions in Saudi cities that began in November 2000. To date, mysterious bombings have killed one Briton and one American, and maimed and injured other Westerners. The Saudi government has insisted that the violence is the result of a turf battle among expatriates involved in the lucrative but illicit alcohol trade, not the work of Saudi militants against Westerners.

To date the Saudi government has provided no evidence publicly that implicates the seven defendants in the bombings beyond the televised "confessions." On March 14, 2002, Reuters quoted a statement by Salah Hejailan, whose prominent Saudi law firm is representing the British defendants, and the other defense lawyer, Ahmed al-Tuwaijeri, saying: "The defendants have retracted their confessions. The defense team can comfortably assert that the case will proceed consistent with those retractions. There does not appear to be any evidence other than the retracted confessions themselves."

Since their arrest the defendants have been held for lengthy periods in solitary confinement and denied access to family and friends. The British defendant James Cottle was held in solitary confinement until last month, according to information the British government provided to his former wife Mary Martini, who lives in Manchester, England, with their three children. Cottle has not been permitted to communicate with his family.

"We have been sending letters every week, but we have never received a reply," Martini told Human Rights Watch. She was also advised that a prison interpreter reads all the letters first, and that Cottle "has been told of letters that he cannot have." Telephone calls to or from the family are not allowed.

The father of Canadian William Sampson traveled to Saudi Arabia to visit his son in March 2002, accompanied by a Canadian psychiatrist, but they were denied access, according to The Globe and Mail.

"Denying prisoners communication with their immediate families is a harsh and unreasonable punishment," said Megally. "If these are the regulations in Saudi Arabia's prison system, then they need to be changed and brought into conformity with international standards."

The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, approved by the United Nations Economic and Social Council in July 1957 and May 1977, states: "An untried prisoner shall be allowed to inform immediately his family of his detention and shall be given all reasonable facilities for communicating with his family and friends, and for receiving visits from them, subject only to restrictions and supervision as are necessary in the interests of the administration of justice and of the security and good order of the institution."

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is currently a member of the United Nations Human Rights Commission for a three-year term from 2001 to 2003. However, Saudi Arabia is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 14 of the ICCPR provides guarantees of due process for any person facing criminal charges, including the right to be promptly informed of the charges against him, the right not to be compelled to testify against himself or to confess guilt, and the right to a legal defense in a fair trial brought without undue delay. Article 14 also provides that trials shall be public except as strictly necessary for reasons of morals, public order, or national security; judgments shall also be made public. Human Rights
Watch opposes the infliction of the death penalty in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty.

Background to Saudi Arabia's Judicial Process:

In Saudi Arabia, criminal cases are heard in the general sharia (Islamic law) court, before one judge or a panel of three judges. The Court of Cassation then automatically reviews all criminal sentences exceeding ten days imprisonment or over forty lashes. The last stage of judicial review is the Supreme Judicial Council (also known as the Higher Council of the Judiciary), an eleven-member body that reviews judgments handed down in cases involving major offenses.

In the wake of the recent reports that the defendants were secretly tried and sentenced, there is confusion about which stages of Saudi Arabia's judicial process have been concluded and which proceedings remain available for the defendants.

Attorney Salah Hejailan told Human Rights Watch on April 29 that a lower court and the Court of Cassation had indeed "ratified" the handwritten confessions of the defendants. Because the confessions were accepted as evidence by the courts, there were no "trial" proceeding as such, and the sentences made public in the press were those initially recommended by the public prosecutor, Hejailan added. He noted that the defendants have since retracted their confessions.

Lawyer Ahmed Tuwaijeri told Human Rights Watch on April 29 that in the Saudi judicial system a sentence is not considered a judgment until it is approved-by the Royal Court in cases of capital punishment, and by the Supreme Judicial Council in other major cases. He stressed that "no final judgment has been taken by the Supreme Judicial Council or the Royal Court" against the defendants.

Tuwaijeri also stated, however, that he and Hejailan "have not been part of any court [proceeding] regarding these cases." But he said that the lawyers now have access to their clients in prison every Sunday and Tuesday, and "are still in the process of interviewing them." He noted, "we are having a lot of cooperation from public prosecutors and the Supreme Judicial Council." He said that the lawyers would be providing their first defense memorandum to the
Supreme Judicial Council "in a few weeks."

Hejailan previously issued a statement to the press indicating that he and Tuwaijeri "met extensively" on April 22 with the head of the Supreme Judicial Council, Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan, and "we have agreed with the Supreme Judicial Council to submit our written and verbal advocacy in the very near future, and we will be given all reasonable opportunities to review and defend our clients' position." Citing the meeting on April 22, Hejailan was quoted in the Guardian on April 28 as saying: "I have been told very, very clearly that we will be given the opportunity to present our defense."

The British government emphasized to Human Rights Watch on April 26 that there was "an ongoing judicial process" for the defendants, without confirming or denying that secret proceedings had taken place at lower levels. The recent comments of the lawyers suggest that the next step in the process is Supreme Judicial Council review, which will include presentations by the defense.

Televised Confessions:

The "confessions" of six of the suspects were shown on Saudi television last year. On February 4, 2001, Alexander Mitchell of Britain, William Sampson of Canada, and Raaf Schyvens of Belgium were shown on a videotape claiming responsibility for two car bombings in Riyadh in November 2000 that killed British citizen Christopher Rodway, and injured his wife and others.

On August 13, 2001, three British citizens-James Cottle, James Lee, and Les Walker similarly "confessed" to involvement in three bombings between December 2000 and March 2001. They stated that they had "received orders" to carry out attacks in Riyadh on January 10 and March 15, 2001, and in Khobar in the Eastern Province on December 15, 2000. As with the earlier "confessions," they did not say who had ordered the bombings and gave no indication of motive.

In addition to not being allowed to write or to talk to his family, since his arrest James Cottle has also been unable to speak freely and privately to British consular officials, and have substantive private conversations with them, raising deep concern about his treatment in detention and the circumstances under which he made the videotaped "confession." Cottle has received periodic visits from British consular officials since June 2001, but the conversations are closely monitored by English-speaking Saudi guards. At least one visit was abruptly terminated when Cottle started to speak on a subject not to the liking of authorities. The Canadian government confirmed that the consular visits of Cottle's codefendant William Sampson took place under similar restrictions. A spokeswoman for the DFA said that Canadian officials visited Sampson on March 30, 2002 but that "[i]t was not possible to discuss anything substantive."

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