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Saudi Arabia should urgently enact a penal code to protect all criminal suspects against arbitrary arrest, Human Rights Watch said in two reports released today. Criminal defendants, especially children, need greater protection against gross abuses during interrogation and unfair trials. The new reports are the result of a yearlong examination of the criminal justice system and draw on hundreds of interviews with Saudi officials, current and former detainees, their lawyers, and their families.

The first, 144-page report, “Precarious Justice: Arbitrary Detention and Unfair Trials in a Deficient Criminal Justice System,” documents the arbitrary arrest and detention of individuals for vaguely defined crimes or behavior that is not inherently criminal. Once arrested, suspects often face prolonged solitary confinement, ill-treatment, forced confessions, and are denied a lawyer at crucial stages of interrogation and trial.

“Current practices in Saudi justice cannot be seen as fair,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Suspects are stuck in a faulty system without any semblance of due process and fair trial rights.”

“Precarious Justice” also documents how defendants face prolonged detention before being brought to trial, at which they cannot question witnesses, examine evidence or present an effective defense.

“Under Saudi justice today, the presumption is guilt, not innocence,” Stork said.

The second, 82-page report, “Adults Before Their Time: Children in Saudi Arabia’s Criminal Justice System,” documents the routine arrest of children for such “offenses” as begging, running away from home, or being alone with a member of the opposite sex. Prosecutors can hold children, like adults, for up to six months before referring them to a judge. In the case of girls, authorities can detain them indefinitely, without judicial review, for what they say is “guidance.” Detention centers mix children under investigation or trial with children convicted of a crime and sometimes with adults. Judges regularly try children without the presence of lawyers or sometimes even guardians, even for crimes punishable by death, flogging, or amputation.

Saudi Arabia sets no clear age when children can be treated as adults in criminal cases. Instead, judges use signs of puberty to determine criminal responsibility. The report documents 12 cases in which judges tried even young children as adults, based on physical signs of puberty such as pubic hair or menstruation and without any consideration of emotional or mental maturity. In 2007, Saudi Arabia executed three juvenile offenders, including a 15-year-old boy who was only 13 at the time of the alleged crime. International standards set 12 years as the minimum age of criminal responsibility, and prohibit the death penalty for crimes committed by persons under age 18 at the time of the crime.

Foreign children trafficked for begging are doubly vulnerable: Saudi Arabia has done little to prevent trafficking or prosecute traffickers, but routinely arrests and returns trafficked children to countries such as Somalia or Chad where they risk recruitment as child soldiers, trafficking, and other serious abuses. Most deportations take place within three to four days of arrest, with little or no effort to trace the children’s families or ensure their safety.

“In Saudi Arabia’s justice system, a child who commits a minor offense and a hardened adult criminal are treated similarly,” said Clarisa Bencomo, children’s rights researcher for the Middle East at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of helping reintegrate these children into society, it exposes them to new dangers and greater abuses.”

Human Rights Watch calls on Saudi Arabia to:

• Adopt a written penal code that does not criminalize the exercise of basic human rights such as freedom of expression;
• Enact new and amend existing legislation to reinforce protections against arbitrary arrest, due process and fair trial violations;
• Instruct prosecutors and judges to dismiss cases or overturn verdicts where serious due process and fair trial violations have occurred;
• Set up a public defender program affording all indigent and juvenile defendants a lawyer;
• Outlaw the death penalty and all forms of corporal punishment against persons under 18 at the time of the offense;
• End discriminatory laws and practices that make girls and women vulnerable to arbitrary arrest and detention;
• End the arrest and detention of foreign children who are victims of trafficking and other exploitation; and,
• Ensure that no child is repatriated to a country where they risk abuse.

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