Establishes Legal Veneer for Unlawful Practices
February 6, 2014
King Abdullah was once considered a cautious reformer but the new terrorism law could wipe out a decade of the most modest progress. Instead of loosening the reins on Saudi society, the king is empowering criminal justice authorities to arrest and try peaceful activists along with suspected terrorists.
Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director

(Beirut) – The Saudi government’s new terrorism law violates the right to due process and a fair trial, Human Rights Watch said today. The law’s serious flaws include vague, overly broad provisions that allow authorities to criminalize free expression and the creation of excessive police powers without judicial oversight.

The government’s official gazette, Um al-Qura, published the full text of the Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing (the “terrorism law”) on January 31, 2014, indicating that the law would take effect on February 1.

“King Abdullah was once considered a cautious reformer but the new terrorism law could wipe out a decade of the most modest progress,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of loosening the reins on Saudi society, the king is empowering criminal justice authorities to arrest and try peaceful activists along with suspected terrorists.”

This terrorism law differs significantly from a 2011 draft, most notably by removing all sentencing guidelines, removing a blanket ban on participation in demonstrations, and removing provisions criminalizing as defamation statements calling the king or the state an unbeliever. Yet the law preserves a vague, overly broad definition of terrorism that would criminalize virtually any speech critical of the government or society, and grants the interior minister the legal authority to jail people or monitor their communications and financial data without judicial oversight.

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].

This definition makes no mention of the elements that limit the definition of terrorism in other countries, such as restricting the definition of terrorism to violence, or other acts intended to instill terror in the general population and to force the government to take, or refrain from taking, a particular action.

The law could make it even easier for the government to prosecute and jail peaceful dissidents, Human Rights Watch said. Saudi courts in 2013 convicted prominent activists with the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association – including Abdullah al-Hamid, Mohammed al-Qahtani, and Abd al-Kareem al-Khudr – on charges that included “disturbing public order.” All three are serving long prison sentences. Fadhil al-Manasif, an activist in the Eastern province, is detained and 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 law uses a narrower definition of terrorism in provisions that apply to both Saudi citizens abroad and foreigners outside of the kingdom. But it also includes the overly broad provision of aiming to “infringe on the interests of the kingdom, or its economy, or its national or social security,” which could be applied to any peaceful criticism of Saudi authorities abroad.

“The new terrorism law sends a chilling message not only to Saudi activists on the ground, but also to international journalists and organizations abroad that scrutinize Saudi Arabia’s human rights record that they could be targeted for prosecution in the kingdom,” Stork said.

The terrorism law grants extensive powers to the interior minister that undermine the due process rights of the accused in existing Saudi law. The new law empowers the minister to order arrests of terrorism suspects without going through the public prosecutor, as well as full powers to access the suspect’s private banking and communications information, all without judicial oversight.

The law also grants the interior minister the right to commute the sentence of anyone convicted under the terrorism law or to stop criminal proceedings against them. It gives the Specialized Criminal Court – Saudi Arabia’s terrorism tribunal – the authority to hear witnesses and experts without the presence of the defendant or the defendant’s lawyer. It requires the court only to inform them of the content of the testimony, greatly hampering their right to challenge this evidence.

A person alleging wrongful arrest, detention, and prosecution must appeal for redress first to the Interior Ministry and then the Specialized Criminal Court, rather than regular administrative courts.

The law restricts a suspect’s right to access to a lawyer to an undefined time determined by the investigating agency, not during interrogation, as the Saudi criminal procedure law explicitly provides. The law also raises the current legal limit on the time officials may hold a suspect in pretrial detention from 6 months to 12, with unlimited extension upon court order, and allows for incommunicado detention of terrorism suspects for 60 to 90 days from the date of arrest. According to the UN special rapporteur on Torture, “Torture is most frequently practiced during incommunicado detention.”

The law also provides specialized rehabilitation centers already operating throughout the country with a legal basis to  “fix incorrect concepts” and “deepen patriotism”  of anyone suspected of involvement in terrorism. It gives criminal justice authorities the right to send terrorism suspects to these centers in lieu of detention and prosecution. Granting authorities the right to force people who have not been convicted of a crime to attend rehabilitation centers violates the right to a presumption of innocence, Human Rights Watch said.

“The new terrorism law gives Saudi officials a tool to silence anyone who says anything they don’t like, all in the name of fighting terrorism,” Stork said.