Saudi Arabia should immediately release, or formally charge and present the evidence against, 10 persons arrested by its secret police on February 2, Human Rights Watch said today.
The men are all associated with advocacy for reform, and the secrecy surrounding their arrest and detention on dubious allegations of financing terrorism in Iraq suggests that the arrests are politically motivated. The secret police has denied detainees family visits, access to legal counsel, and has yet to confirm the location where one of the men is detained.
“Once again, Saudi authorities are seeking to silence reformers instead of engaging in debate about the serious issues these men work on,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Seven of the detainees are prominent and longstanding advocates of political and social reforms.”
On February 2, Saudi secret police (mabahith) commandos stormed the Jeddah villa of lawyer `Isam Basrawi, where he was meeting with a group of five associates widely known for their advocacy on issues of social and political reform in Saudi Arabia. The police arrested all six men in addition to Basrawi’s personal assistant. Another associate was arrested in his car in Jeddah, and two others in Medina. The secret police handcuffed those in the villa and transported them to a new mabahith prison about 30 kilometers northeast of Jeddah near `Isfan, according to a person in Jeddah who received details of the arrest from Basrawi’s wife.
During a fact-finding mission to Saudi Arabia in November and December 2006, Human Rights Watch met with four of the 10 detainees – Sulaiman al-Rashudi, `Isam Basrawi, `Abd al-Rahman al-Shumairi, and `Abd al-`Aziz al-Khuraiji – and their lawyer, Basim `Alim. Others arrested in Jeddah include Sa`ud Mukhtar al-Hashimi, Musa al-Qarni, al-Sharif Saif al-Din Shahin and Basrawi’s assistant, Hussain al-Sadiqi, who is Moroccan.
Sulaiman al-Rashudi, an elderly former judge, was also arrested on March 16, 2004 by Saudi secret police, along with 13 other prominent advocates of political and constitutional reform. Another of those currently arrested, al-Hashimi, who is a medical doctor, runs a prominent intellectual discussion forum (diwaniya) in his house in Jeddah. His wife told Human Rights Watch that the secret police frequently summoned him to instruct him to stop inviting prominent Islamist personalities to his house for discussion. She said that only three days before his arrest, he had participated in a television debate on the demands of the political reformers.
On April 12, 2006, Musa al-Qarni, another of those arrested this month, was among four men who petitioned King Abdullah for permission to open an Islamic Civil Society organization with the aim of discussing “freedom, justice, equality, citizenship, pluralism, [proper] advice, and the role of women.” Neither the king’s office nor any other government agency ever replied.
Basim `Alim, a lawyer for four of the detainees, told Human Rights Watch that the authorities have refused him access to his clients, despite repeated cables to Assistant Minister of Interior for Security Affairs Prince Muhammad bin Nayef bin Abd al-`Aziz Al Sa`ud. On February 3, Saudi Ministry of Interior spokesperson Lt.Gen. Mansur al-Turki is reported by news media to have alleged that those arrested were involved in collecting money to send Saudi youth to “disturbed areas,” but no formal charges are yet known.
`Isam Basrawi’s son, Hisam, reportedly has tried daily to visit the mabahith prison to see his father, who is disabled and relies on his personal assistant’s help to move around. His attempts have been unsuccessful. Al-Hashimi’s wife, Asma’, told Human Rights Watch that when she went to the prison on February 5, an officer there denied they were holding her husband. She has not received news of his whereabouts. Mabahith officers on February 3 briefly detained Sa`ud’s brother Usama al-Hashimi when he refused to allow them entry to Sa`ud’s house without a search warrant.
Human Rights Watch is calling on the Saudi Minister of Interior to release the detained reformers. The mabahith officers appear to have failed to comply with Saudi law in conducting the searches and arrests. Mabahith officers produced no search warrants, although Article 41 of the Saudi Code of Criminal Procedure specifies that house searches require “a search warrant specifying the reasons for the search, issued by the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution.” They have also held the detainees incommunicado and their lawyer and family members have not been able to visit them or receive information on their charges. Most worryingly, the whereabouts of Sa’ud Mukhtar al-Hashimi is not known.
Article 116 of the Saudi Criminal Procedure Code gives the arrested person the right to “be promptly notified of the reasons for his arrest or detention” and 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” (Article 101), which has to be within 48 hours (Article 34). The code also provides the detainee “shall be entitled to communicate with any person of his choice to inform him of his arrest” (Article 35). A period of arrest longer than 24 hours requires “a written order from the investigator” (Article 33), but can be ordered “if the accused fails to establish his innocence” (Article 34) to the arresting officer. This criterion places Saudi law at odds with international standards that require respect for the fundamental right to presumption of innocence.
“The mabahith’s disregard for their laws in arresting well-known reformers on dubious grounds shows that in Saudi Arabia, politics still trump the rule of law,” Whitson said.