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(Beirut) – Saudi courts have sentenced two men to death and five others to long prison terms after trials that made a mockery of due process. Authorities charged all seven following protests by members of the Shia minority in 2011 and 2012 in Eastern Province towns that resulted in hundreds of arrests.

Human Rights Watch has obtained and analyzed the four separate trial judgments that the Specialized Criminal Court, Saudi Arabia’s terrorism tribunal, handed down against the seven between December 2013 and May 2014. These reveal flagrant due process violations, including broadly framed charges that do not resemble recognizable crimes, and denial of access to lawyers at arrest and during their long pre-trial detention, making it almost impossible to prepare cases for trial. At all four trials, the court quickly dismissed without investigation allegations of torture and admitted as evidence confessions that defendants said were coerced.

“Saudi Arabia has been trumpeting its progress in reforming the justice system, but these convictions demonstrate how far the kingdom still has to go to guarantee fair trials and the rights of detainees, particularly of perceived government critics,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It beggars belief that courts didn’t care if the confessions they used to convict were obtained through torture.”

Eastern Province towns including Qatif, Awamiyya, and Hufuf have been the site of repeated protests, especially since Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain in March 2011, despite the Saudi authorities’ categorical ban on protests that month. Saudi Shia citizens, a majority of residents in these areas, face systematic discrimination in public education, government employment, and in being allowed to build houses of worship in the majority-Sunni country.

All seven of the men were convicted on vague, catch-all charges based almost entirely on “confessions” during up to five months of incommunicado pretrial detention. At trial, six of the defendants repudiated their confessions, saying they were coerced in conditions that in some cases amounted to torture, including beatings and prolonged solitary confinement. The court rejected the allegations out of hand. One of the two defendants sentenced to death was under 18 at the time of his alleged crime. The others were sentenced to between one and 15 years in prison.

The vague charges included “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and “harming the government of the kingdom” for acts such as calling for or inciting protests and marches, attending demonstrations, taking and sharing photos of protests, and assisting journalists covering the events. In the absence of a written penal code or narrowly worded regulations, judges and prosecutors in Saudi Arabia can criminalize a wide range of acts under broad, catch-all categories.

All seven faced the charge of “breaking allegiance with the ruler,” one of the most serious criminal offenses in Saudi Arabia, but prosecutors did not connect that charge to any specific actions by the defendants.

Four were tried for nonviolent offenses, and a judge dismissed accusations of violence against another. Prosecutors charged the two others with attacking police officers or patrols with Molotov cocktails or firearms, based on confessions the men said were coerced, but gave no details of any injuries to police officers.

One of the cases Human Rights Watch analyzed involved Fadhil al-Manasif, a human rights activist sentenced in April 2014 to 15 years in prison, a 15-year ban on travel abroad, and a large fine. Charges included participating in demonstrations, spreading photos of demonstrations, visiting websites hostile to the state, “being in contact with foreign news organizations to exaggerate the news and harm the government of the kingdom,” “circulating his phone number to [foreign] news agencies to allow them to call him,” and driving foreign reporters to the protests.

Al-Manasif’s defense team contended that many of the actions should not be considered criminal behavior, especially collaboration with foreign journalists who were legally registered to work in Saudi Arabia, including a Reuters correspondent. The defense team cited a previous ruling in Qatif Criminal Court that “Not every violation of a regulation, statute, or instruction issued by a specialized agency should be considered disobedience of the ruler.” Neither the judge nor the prosecutor responded in detail to these arguments, according to the trial judgment.

In another case involving four men, the charges included using social media to call for demonstrations and marches, participating in demonstrations, and setting up a YouTube channel for protest videos. Defense lawyers contended that “simply going out to demonstrations and marches should not be considered harming the security of the country since they were not accompanied by rioting, destruction, or subjecting public order to harm.” But the court failed to respond in detail, finding the men guilty and sentencing them to prison.

None of the defendants were permitted to have a defense lawyer immediately after their arrest or during the investigation. In some cases, lawyers were not permitted to visit their clients in jail. A few lawyers complained to judges that the court had not provided charge sheets to the defendants until after the trial started. The restrictions made it almost impossible to prepare the case for trial, one defendant’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch.

Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, sentenced to death in May, was under 18 at the time of his alleged crimes. Family members said that following his arrest in February 2012, authorities did not permit them to visit him for four months. The authorities called him before a judge for the first time in December 2013, without informing his family, allowing him to appoint a lawyer, or providing a copy of his charge sheet. The court held three more sessions before al-Nimr was allowed to appoint a lawyer. In spite of court orders to the contrary, Dammam Mabahith Prison officials did not allow al-Nimr’s lawyer to visit him in prison to help prepare a defense.

In citing evidence that “confessions” were made under torture or coercion, al-Manasif’s defense team cited an investigator’s comment to al-Manasif from the case file that the team argued constituted a clear threat, including, “Lack of disclosure will prolong your stay in prison.”

Reda al-Rabh, sentenced to death in May for alleged attacks on the police in 2011, alleged in court that his confession had been coerced. His lawyer told the judge, “He was forced to sign it by means of pressure, torture, manipulation, [and] psychological intimidation.” The lawyer said al-Rabh spent four months and 17 days in solitary confinement before his alleged confession.

In al-Nimr’s case, the court recognized that the investigator drafted the text of al-Nimr’s confession, but upheld its admissibility since al-Nimr had signed it. Family members said that al-Nimr only signed the statement after investigators told him it would result in his release.

In dismissing torture claims, one judge said, “Religious scholars have ruled that retracting a confession for a discretionary crime is not acceptable.” Al-Nimr’s judge said, “Therefore what the defendant has retracted from what appeared in his legally signed statement is not permitted, and what the defendant has argued regarding coercion was not proven to the judges.” In spite of pages of arguments submitted by al-Manasif’s legal team that investigators had coerced his statement, the judge dismissed the claims in one sentence, saying there was a lack of evidence. Some defendants asked judges to request video footage from the prison that they said would show them being tortured. Judges ignored these requests.

Article 13 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia ratified in 2009, guarantees the right to a fair trial.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), to which Saudi Arabia acceded in 1996, stipulates a number of important rights for children accused of committing crimes, including the right to prepare an appropriate defense with “legal or other appropriate assistance” (article 40.2), the right “to have the matter determined without delay by a competent, independent and impartial authority or judicial body in a fair hearing according to law, in the presence of legal or other appropriate assistance” including the child’s parents or legal guardian (article 40.3), and the right to “not to be compelled to give testimony or to confess guilt” (article 40.4). Article 37(a) of the CRC prohibits capital punishment for children in all cases. Saudi authorities appear to have violated these obligations in the case of Ali al-Nimr, Human Rights Watch said.

“Unfair trials of protesters amount to no more than a legal veneer for state repression of popular demands to end long-term discrimination,” Whitson said. “Saudi Arabia’s judicial council should immediately review these judgments and quash those with clear due process violations.”


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