(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia’s trial of 32 men for allegedly spying on behalf of Iran has violated the basic due process rights of the defendants, Human Rights Watch said today. Over nearly three years of detention and investigation and the first two months of hearings, authorities have not permitted defendants to meet with lawyers or provided all of the court documents necessary to prepare a defense. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against 25 of the 32.
The men are accused of spying for Iran. But the charge sheet, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, contains numerous allegations that do not resemble recognizable crimes, including “supporting demonstrations,” “harming the reputation of the kingdom,” and attempting to “spread the Shia confession.” The trial began in February 2016 at the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh.
“This trial is shaping up as another stain on Saudi Arabia’s grossly unfair criminal justice system,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director. “Criminal trials should not be merely legal ‘window-dressing’ where the verdict has been decided beforehand.”
According to the charge sheet, the defendants include 30 Saudis, and one Iranian and one Afghan citizen. An individual with direct knowledge of the case told Human Rights Watch that all but one of the Saudi defendants are Shia Muslims. Authorities detained 17 detainees on March 16, 2013, 14 others later in 2013, and one in 2014.
Taha al-Haji, a Saudi lawyer who represented a group of the defendants until March, told Human Rights Watch that the defendants have been in pre-trial detention since their arrests. He and another person with knowledge of the case said that authorities held the men incommunicado for three months before allowing phone calls and visits with family members.
Al-Haji said that authorities have not permitted defense lawyers to visit their clients or to view case files and evidence against their clients. He said that with little advance notice, the authorities suddenly brought the men to trial in February and demanded that lawyers prepare defense statements within two weeks. He said he believes the timing may relate to ongoing hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which severed diplomatic relations in January after Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Saudi Shia cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, and Iranian protesters sacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran in retaliation.
Local Saudi media outlets reported in March that some of the defense lawyers refused to participate in court proceedings. The Saudi Gazette, reported that “lawyers made a number of demands through some [defendants who attended the hearing], including providing them with car parking slots near the court, not to be frisked, and letting them in [the courtroom] with their mobile phones.”
Al-Haji said, however, that the lawyers’ primary concerns have been an inability to visit clients and view evidence, or have adequate time to prepare a defense. He said defense lawyers also asked the court to halt an ongoing local media smear campaign against their clients, which they said would lead to an unfair trial.
The charge sheet includes a number of offenses constituting “high treason,” including meeting with Iranian “intelligence agents” and passing them confidential military information and background information on Shia communities in Mecca, Medina, and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.
But among charges that do not represent recognizable crimes, six are charged with “supporting demonstrations,” three with “distorting the reputation of the kingdom,” and three with attempting to “spread the Shia confession” in Saudi Arabia. One faces the charge of “planning with an Iranian intelligence element… to establish a company to spread Shia activities in [Eastern Province.]…” Another faces the charge of “endeavoring and attempting to establish a center especially for the Shia confession in the city of Mecca to spread the Shia confession in Mecca.”
Authorities accuse one defendant of sharing with Iranian intelligence agents “articles by the wayward and deviant thinker Mikhlif bin Daham al-Shammari.” Al-Shammari is a prominent human rights defender in Saudi Arabia who has worked to improve relations between Sunni and Shia. He faces a two-year prison sentence and 200 lashes for, in part, visiting prominent Shia figures in the eastern province as a goodwill gesture.
Saudi Arabia’s Shia citizens face systematic discrimination in public education, government employment, and permission to build houses of worship in the majority-Sunni country.
Though defense lawyers have not been permitted access to evidence, the charge sheet makes reference to physical evidence, such as USB drives and computers as well as confessions and statements to investigators.
Human Rights Watch obtained and analyzed seven Specialized Criminal Court judgments from 2013 and 2014 against men and children accused of protest-related crimes following demonstrations by members of the Shia minority. In all seven trials, detainees alleged that confessions were extracted through torture, but judges quickly dismissed these allegations, admitted the confessions as evidence, and then convicted the detainees almost solely based on these confessions, sometimes handing down death sentences.
The conduct of the trial so far raises fears that 25 of the 32 defendants could be handed death sentences without an adequate chance to defend themselves, Human Rights Watch said.
Article 13 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia ratified in 2009, guarantees the right to a fair trial. The Arab Charter 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. The charter says that “Pre-trial detention shall in no case be the general rule” (article 14).
Article 25 of the Arab Charter guarantees the right of minority groups to practice their own religion, and article 4 bans discrimination on the basis of religion.
“Being a Shia Muslim should not be a crime, and Saudi courts should stop treating it as such,” Whitson said.