(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah should reject a new counterterrorism law that criminalizes virtually any speech critical of the government or society. The Council of Ministers passed the Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing (the “terrorism law”) on December 16, 2013, and it awaits King Abdullah’s promulgation by royal decree to go into effect.
Saudi authorities have not released the text, but a December 16 Saudi Press Agency statement includes a definition of terrorism similar to that in a 2011 draft that had been leaked to international human rights organizations. The 2011 draft contained serious flaws, including an overbroad definition of terrorism; unwarranted limits on speech, assembly, and association; excessive police powers without judicial oversight; and violations of due process and the right to a fair trial.
“King Abdullah should think long and hard before signing into law a definition of terrorism that would criminalize peaceful activities that have nothing to do with terrorist acts,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “King Abdullah should be easing the restrictions on Saudis’ rights, not setting in stone terrible counterterrorism measures.”
The Saudi Press Agency stated that the new law defines terrorism as:
Any act carried out by an offender in furtherance of an individual or collective project, directly or indirectly, intended to disturb the public order of the state, or to shake the security of society, or the stability of the state, or to expose its national unity to danger, or to suspend the basic law of governance or some of its articles, or to insult the reputation of the state or its position, or to inflict damage upon one of its public utilities or its natural resources, or to attempt to force a governmental authority to carry out or prevent it from carrying out an action, or to threaten to carry out acts that lead to the named purposes or incite [these acts].
The new definition contains several small additions to the 2011 draft law’s definition, but is largely similar. Some of the elements are exceedingly vague, such as “disturb[ing] public order,” “shak[ing] the security of society or the stability of the state,” or “insult[ing] the reputation of the state,” Human Rights Watch said.
While protecting public order and national security are recognized in international human rights law as legitimate purposes for limiting certain other rights under narrow circumstances, vague and overbroad legal provisions cannot be the basis for overriding a broad array of fundamental rights. Saudi Arabia’s denial of the rights to participate in public affairs, and freedom of religion, peaceful assembly, association, and expression, as well as its systematic discrimination against women greatly exceed any notion of justifiable restrictions, Human Rights Watch said.
The Saudi law’s definition does not require a person accused of terrorism to intend to use deadly or otherwise serious physical violent means against a population, or to take hostages, which the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights while countering terrorism has said have to be the central elements of a terrorist act.
Since 2011, Saudi authorities have increasingly pursued prosecutions of peaceful human rights and social activists, many of whom prosecutors have charged with the provisions contained in the new law’s definition of terrorism. Prominent activists with the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) – including Abdullah al-Hamid, Mohammed al-Qahtani, and Abd al-Kareem al-Khudr – were convicted and imprisoned by Saudi courts in 2013 on charges that included “disturbing public order.” Fadhil al-Manasif, an Eastern province activist, is currently on trial before Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court for, among other things, “contacting foreign news agencies to exaggerate news and insult the government of Saudi Arabia and its people.” The new terrorism law would codify in written law these vague, overbroad charges used to prosecute peaceful activists and dissidents.
Bandar al-Aiban, the president of Saudi Arabia’s governmental Human Rights Commission, told a Human Right Watch researcher in Riyadh in July that the draft terrorism law had flaws, and that the ministers might drop it from consideration. They did not, however, as the Saudi Press Agency announcement shows.
“The terrorism law would allow the government to label any Saudi who demands reform or exposes corruption as a terrorist,” Whitson said. “The Saudi government seems more focused on silencing peaceful activists than addressing the real problem of terrorist violence.”