(Beirut) – The Saudi criminal justice system tramples the rights of Pakistani defendants to due process and fair trials, Human Rights Watch and Justice Project Pakistan said in a report released today. The glaring defects in the criminal justice system are especially acute for Pakistanis, who face substantial difficulties finding legal assistance, navigating Saudi court procedures, and getting consular services from Pakistani embassy officials.
The 29-page report, “‘Caught in a Web’: Treatment of Pakistanis in the Saudi Criminal Justice System,” documents the Saudi criminal justice system and Saudi courts’ rampant due process violations in criminal cases involving Pakistanis. The violations include long periods of detention without charge or trial, lack of access to legal assistance, pressure on detainees to sign confessions and accept predetermined prison sentences to avoid prolonged arbitrary detention, and ineffective translation services. Some defendants reported ill-treatment and poor prison conditions.
“Despite years of promising reforms, Saudi authorities blatantly disregard the rights of both Saudis and non-Saudis in criminal cases,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Its treatment of Pakistani defendants shows just how far Saudi Arabia has to go to improve the rule of law.”
Saudi Arabia hosts 12 million foreigners, over one-third of the country’s total population. About 1.6 million Pakistanis, most of them foreign migrant workers, make up the second-largest migrant community in Saudi Arabia.
Human Rights Watch and Justice Project Pakistan interviewed 12 Pakistani citizens detained and put on trial in Saudi Arabia in recent years, as well as seven family members of nine other defendants. They were involved in 19 criminal cases, ranging from petty theft and document forgery to murder and drug smuggling, which are often capital offenses in Saudi Arabia.
Due process violations were most consequential for defendants involved in the most serious cases. Since the beginning of 2014, Saudi Arabia has executed 73 Pakistanis, more than any other foreign nationality, nearly all for heroin smuggling. Three of the drug-related cases reviewed resulted in the death penalty, four in prison sentences from 15 to 20 years, one in a prison sentence of four years, and three remained on trial.
Family members said that four of the defendants had been forced by drug traffickers to serve as “drug mules.” But they said that Saudi courts were not interested in the circumstances and did not attempt to investigate or appear to take coercion claims into account during sentencing.
In all the non-death penalty cases, judges did not give defendants an adequate opportunity to mount a defense. They said that at their first court hearings, judges issued predetermined convictions and sentences based solely on police reports and asked defendants to accept them. They were allowed to challenge the decision in writing, but judges presented the same rulings at subsequent hearings, leaving the impression that not accepting sentences would mean indefinite detention.
“The judge had our case files in front of him,” one person said. “He passed our sentences without listening to our stories.”
Nine defendants said that court officials pressured them to agree to rulings without the opportunity to read, review, or fully understand them. One said he was sentenced to 10 days and 80 lashes for alcohol and fighting, and was later shocked to discover that the sentence also ordered his deportation.
Only one of those interviewed had a defense lawyer largely because the others did not have the resources to locate or pay a lawyer while in prison. Four said that court-appointed translators did not provide adequate services, sometimes intentionally misrepresenting detainees’ statements or failing to accurately describe the contents of Arabic-language court documents.
Some of the detainees and family members described poor prison conditions, including overcrowding, unsanitary facilities, lack of beds and sheets, and poor medical care. Two former detainees and one current detainee said that Saudi prison authorities had subjected them to ill-treatment, including slapping, beating with a belt, and shocking with an electrical device during interrogations. The family member of another detainee said that authorities had beaten her husband with “sticks.”
Under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which Saudi Arabia ratified in 1988, Saudi Arabia has an obligation to inform Pakistani consular officials when they arrest a Pakistani citizen. In the cases reviewed, however, it did not appear that Saudi officials informed Pakistani consular officials about the arrests. Justice Project Pakistan wrote to Pakistani Foreign Affairs Ministry officials about all of the Pakistani detainees but received no response. Family members interviewed generally did not know which government agency to contact when their relatives were arrested in Saudi Arabia.
Most of the Pakistanis did not seek consular services from the Pakistani embassy in Riyadh or consulate in Jeddah because they did not believe Pakistani officials would offer any assistance. One person had met with a consular official, but others who contacted embassy officials received help only with deportation procedures. They said that Pakistani officials rarely if ever visited Saudi prisons, unlike representatives of other countries.
“There is no excuse for Saudi Arabia’s treatment of Pakistani citizens, but Pakistani authorities should dramatically improve consular services for those in detention or on trial,” said Whitson. “Improved services will give Pakistani citizens more of a fighting chance to survive Saudi Arabia’s arbitrary and unfair justice system.”