Then-Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a graduation ceremony at King Faisal Air College in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, January 25, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia’s mass arrest of princes, current and former government officials, and prominent businessmen on November 4, 2017, over corruption allegations raises human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said today. Saudi authorities should immediately reveal the legal and evidentiary basis for each person’s detention and make certain that each person detained can exercise their due process rights.

On the evening of November 4, the governmental Saudi Press Agency (SPA) announced a royal decree establishing a high-level anti-corruption committee headed by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Later in the evening, the Saudi-owned news channel al-Arabiya began reporting the detentions. Those detained include Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, an influential businessman who is chairman of Kingdom Holding Company. The arrests come in the wake of a wave of other recent arrests, including of clerics, human rights activists, and intellectuals.

“The middle-of-the-night simultaneous establishment of a new corruption body and mass arrests over corruption raise concerns that Saudi authorities detained people en masse and without outlining the basis of the detentions,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “While Saudi media are framing these measures as Mohammad bin Salman’s move against corruption, the mass arrests suggest this may be more about internal power politics.”

The November 4 royal decree says that King Salman created the anti-corruption committee due to “the exploitation of some weaklings who followed their own interests rather than the public interest, who attacked public money without regard for religion, conscience, morals, or patriotism...” The Financial Times reported that Khalid al-Mehaisen, a member of the new committee, said that authorities had investigated those arrested for three years, although he offered no further details.

In addition to the crown prince, the committee consists of head of the Control and Investigation Board, the head of the National Anti-Corruption Commission, the head of the General Auditing Bureau, the attorney general, and the head of the Presidency of State Security. The decree reported that the committee will have broad powers to investigate cases, order arrests, impose travel bans, and seize assets, apparently without judicial review.

Three government officials told Reuters that the detainees include 11 princes, four ministers, dozens of former ministers, and several influential businessmen and media executives. The same report indicated that authorities are holding some of the detainees at the five-star Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh.

In addition to bin Talal, those detained include a former national guard minister, Prince Mutib bin Abdullah; a former finance minister, Ibrahim al-Assaf, a former planning minister, Adel Fakih; a former Riyadh governor, Prince Turki bin Abdullah; a former royal court chief, Khalid al-Tuwaijri, Bakr bin Laden, the chairman of the Saudi Binladin Group; and Alwaleed al-Ibrahim, owner of the MBC television network.

Authorities reportedly froze the bank accounts on November 6 of all those detained for corruption.

According to the Saudi English-language daily Arab News, Attorney General Sheikh Saud al-Muajab, a member of the new committee, said that the committee had “initiated a number of investigations.” He did not clarify the legal basis for detaining the suspects before the investigations were completed.

International human rights law protects basic rights, including the right not to be arbitrarily detained. Any charges authorities bring must resemble recognizable crimes. At a minimum, those detained should be informed of the specific grounds for their arrest, be able to fairly contest their detention before an independent and impartial judge, have access to a lawyer and family members, and have their case periodically reviewed.

Holding detainees at unofficial detention centers also violates international standards. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, in its general comment on article seven of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), stated that “…provisions should be made for detainees to be held in places officially recognized as places of detention and for their names and places of detention, as well as for the names of persons responsible for their detention, to be kept in registers readily available and accessible to those concerned, including relatives and friends.” While Saudi Arabia has not ratified the ICCPR, it constitutes authoritative sources and guidelines that reflect international best practice.

Saudi authorities have not disclosed the specific reasons for the detention of the dozens of other people since mid-September. But the detentions fit a pattern of human rights violations against peaceful advocates and dissidents, including harassment, intimidation, smear campaigns, travel bans, detention, and prosecution.

Following Mohammad bin Salman’s accession to crown prince in July, a New York Times report quoted former and current US officials saying that authorities subjected the former crown prince and interior minister, Mohammad bin Nayef, to house arrest and banned him from travel abroad, apparently without judicial review.

Saudi courts have convicted at least 25 prominent activists and dissidents since 2011. Many faced sentences as long as 10 or 15 years and most faced broad, catch-all charges designed to criminalize peaceful dissent. They include “breaking allegiance with the ruler,” “sowing discord,” “inciting public opinion,” “setting up an unlicensed organization,” and vague provisions from the 2007 cybercrime law.

“It’s great that Saudi authorities are declaring that they want to take on the scourge of corruption, but the right way to do that is through diligent judicial investigations against actual wrongdoing, not sensationalistic mass arrests to a luxury hotel,” Whitson said.