Skip to main content

Your Excellency,

I write to express concern that Saudi Arabia’s current detention practices, in many cases, result in arbitrary detention in Saudi Arabia, and to seek your response to a number of questions related to this issue that arise from a recent analysis that Human Rights Watch conducted of official Saudi data.

In early 2013, the Saudi interior ministry launched the Nafetha Tawasol (communication window) website, a regularly updated online database that purports to document detainees in Saudi prisons, without identifying them, and the status of their cases. The website also facilitates electronic meetings between detainees and family members, in-person visits, and applications for short-term prisoner release. According to a letter sent to Human Rights Watch by the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in London in July 2013, “[by] establishing this website the Government of Saudi Arabia is clearly demonstrating its intention to be transparent in its treatment of detainees. This treatment is in accordance with the laws and regulations and ensures justice and fairness for all.”

Human Rights Watch analyzed data from the Nafetha Tawasul portal as it appeared on May 15, 2014, when it showed 2,766 people in detention. These included 293 detainees who criminal justice officials had apparently held in pre-trial detention for over six months without having referring their cases to the judiciary. It appeared 16 of these 293 detainees had been held for over two years without having their cases referred to the judiciary, including one Saudi citizen who authorities had held in such pre-trial detention for more than ten years. The database showed almost 700 others whose cases had been progressing through the Saudi court system for unreasonable lengths of time, of whom at least 177 appeared to have been awaiting trial verdicts for over ten years.

The database referred to eight possible “case statuses,” including six that indicated pre-trial detention (these were: “under investigation,” “case submitted to the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution,” “case submitted to the Specialized Criminal Court,” “case file with the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution,” “in the process of completing procedures to refer to the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution to enforce directives in the case,” and “case file under judicial review”). The other two case statuses were “convicted” and “convicted pending appeal.”

The database was silent on the question of whether detainees had the opportunity to secure their release from pre-trial detention by agreeing to guarantees, and it failed to indicate whether detainees whose cases had been referred to prosecutors had been formally charged or brought before a judge.

The database showed that 31 detainees – 28 Saudis, one Syrian, one Yemeni, and another whose nationality was not disclosed - remained “under investigation” although authorities had held them for over six months.

The database described the case status of one Saudi citizen held without trial since 2003 and a Yemeni detained without trial since 2010 as “case submitted to the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution.” A Saudi lawyer whom Human Rights Watch consulted said he understood this status description to mean that investigators had passed the cases to prosecutors but that they had yet to action them.

The database also indicated that the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution was still preparing cases against 117 detainees whose case files they had yet to refer to the judiciary although the detainees had been held for over six months. Most of these 117 were Saudi citizens; authorities had held some for years, in one case since 2006, in five cases since 2007, and others since 2008 and 2011. One of seven Yemeni detainees in this category had been detained since 2008, an Iraqi had been detained since 2011, and other detainees were of Palestinian, Pakistani, Chadian, and Sudanese nationality.

The database listed the cases of 143 detainees held for over six months as “completing referral to the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution.” Most of these detainees had been apprehended in 2013, but at least four - an Egyptian detained in 2008, a Saudi detained in 2009, and Yemenis detained in 2009 and in 2010 – had been held without trial for more than four years. The Saudi lawyer that Human Rights Watch consulted said that it normally takes four to five months to set a trial date once a case has been transferred to prosecutors.

As you will be aware, Article 114 of Saudi Arabia’s Law of Criminal Procedure (LCP) provides that a person may be held in detention without charge for a maximum of five days, renewable up to a total of six months by an order from the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution. After six months, Article 114 requires that a detainee “be directly transferred to the competent court, or be released.” Yet, the data showing on the Nafetha Tawasul database when Human Rights Watch reviewed it on May 15, 2014 showed that at least 31 people then detained had been held without charge by Saudi authorities for periods that exceeded the six-month maximum permitted under the LCP. In addition, the data showed that at least 293 people had been in pre-trial detention for longer – in some cases far longer – than six months.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has determined that detention is arbitrary when the detaining authority fails to observe, wholly or in part, the norms related to the right to a fair trial, including a prompt hearing before a judge. Principle 11 of the UN Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, states that a detainee must be “given an effective opportunity to be heard promptly by a judicial or other authority,” and that a judicial or other authority should be empowered to review the decision to continue detention. The Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia ratified in 2009, also guarantees the right of anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge to be brought promptly before a judge or other officer of the law, and to have a trial within a reasonable time or be released. According to the Arab Charter, “Pre-trial detention shall in no case be the general rule.”

Detentions without trial or appearance before a judge for extended periods of time are arbitrary, and violate both Saudi law and international human rights standards.

On May 15, 2014 the Nafetha Tawasul database showed that hundreds of detainees whose trials have commenced have had their cases pending before Saudi Arabia’s courts for many years. They included 699 detainees who authorities had held for over two-and-a-half years although they had apparently not been convicted by courts: of these, 177 had spent over 10 years in detention. By contrast, an average criminal trial, from the start of the investigation through to the delivery of the final verdict, takes around one year, according to the Saudi lawyer that Human Rights Watch consulted.

Saudi human rights activists have told Human Rights Watch that the detainee list shown on the Nafetha Tawasol includes only those detainees that are held in Mabahith (intelligence) prison facilities and excludes others held in regular prisons under the control of interior ministry’s General Directorate of Prisons. The website itself does not clarify this issue, and the letter from the Saudi Embassy in London to Human Rights Watch in July 2013 did not specify the scope of the database. Consequently, Human Rights Watch searched the ID numbers of 20 Saudi citizens that it knew were being detained by Saudi authorities on September 1, 2014: only 13 of them were listed on the Nafetha Tawasol website but others, such as prominent imprisoned human rights activists Waleed Abu al-Khair, Mohammed al-Qahtani, and Abdullah al-Hamid, did not appear on the database. They are currently held in regular prison facilities administered by the General Directorate of Prisons.

In light of these findings of our analysis of Nafetha Tawasol data, Human Rights Watch requests your response to the following questions:

1. Does the Nafetha Tawasol portal record details of all detainees in Saudi Arabia, or only detainees in Saudi Mabahith (intelligence) prisons? If the latter, does the government plan to establish a similar website relating to detainees held in facilities administered by the General Directorate of Prisons or to expand the Nafetha Tawasol website to make it a comprehensive database of all detainees in custody in Saudi Arabia?

2. What laws, regulations, or circumstances determine whether an individual is detained in Mabahith prisons or regular prisons?

3. What provision, if any, exists for a detainee held without charge to apply for and obtain release on giving guarantees, or for a detainee who faces charges and is awaiting trial to apply for and obtain release on giving guarantees?

4. At what point in the legal process is a detainee formally charged by a prosecutor? Which of the eight trial progress case statuses listed on the Nafetha Tawasol website clearly indicate that a detainee has been charged with a crime?

5. When detainees are formally charged are they immediately brought before a judge? If not, why not? How long are detainees held before brought before a judge?

6. What is the typical length of a criminal trial in Saudi Arabia? What factors could intervene to extend a criminal trial longer than two years?

7. What initiatives or legal reforms is the ministry undertaking to end the practice of arbitrary detention in Saudi Arabia?

We look forward to receiving your reply.


Sarah Leah Whitson

Executive Director

Middle East and North Africa Division

Human Rights Watch

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.