Skip to main content

(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia should immediately investigate the claims that authorities physically mistreated or coerced prominent people detained in November 2017 and hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said today.

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

A March 12, 2018 New York Times report stated that 17 detainees among the princes, businessmen, and former and current government officials held at the five-star Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh required hospitalization for physical abuse. They included one who later died in custody, the report said, “with a neck that appeared twisted [and] a badly swollen body and other signs of abuse.”

“The alleged mistreatment at the Ritz Carlton is a serious blow to Mohammad bin Salman’s claims to be a modernizing reformist,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “While MBS jaunts across Western capitals to gin up foreign investments, investors should think twice about the Saudis’ cavalier dismissal of the rule of law and fundamental rights.”

Human Rights Watch warned at the time that the November 4 mass arrests on corruption allegations raised human rights concerns and appeared to take place outside of any recognizable legal framework, with detainees forced to trade financial and business assets for their freedom. Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton Hotel, where many were held, became an unofficial detention center.

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.

On January 30, Saudi Arabia’s attorney general announced that authorities had “subpoenaed” 381 people in the corruption probe, but that authorities had released everyone who settled with the government or against whom there was not sufficient evidence. The government said it had seized over 400 billion Saudi Riyals (US$106 billion) worth of assets, including “real estate, commercial entities, securities, cash and other assets.”

The statement said that 56 people remained in custody “to continue the investigations process.”

The New York Times report identified Bakr bin Laden, chairman of the Saudi Binladin Group, and Prince Turki bin Abdullah, former Riyadh governor and son of the late King Abdullah, as two of the men who remain in detention.

The Ritz Carlton in Riyadh reopened for business in early February.

The New York Times report said that 17 people required hospitalization for abuse in detention. It identified Maj. Gen. Ali al-Qahtani, an aide to Prince Turki, as the man who later died in detention. The report cited a person who saw the body, which had signs of physical abuse including a twisted neck and burns that appeared to be from electric shocks.

The report indicated that in addition to Prince Turki, the corruption probe targeted several other sons of the late King Abdullah. Another son, Prince Mishaal bin Abdullah, was reported to have been detained after he complained privately about Qahtani’s treatment. On November 17, Middle East Eye reported that another son of the late king, Prince Miteb, the longtime head of the country’s National Guard, was one of the 17 people who required hospitalization.

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous allegations of torture and ill-treatment in Saudi prisons and detention centers in recent years. Human Rights Watch also has documented Saudi courts’ use of confessions to sentence defendants to serious punishments, including the death penalty, even after defendants tried to recant them in court, saying that they were coerced into giving them.

Human Rights Watch obtained and analyzed seven separate trial judgments that the country’s Specialized Criminal Court handed down in 2013 and 2014 against men and children accused of protest-related crimes following popular demonstrations by members of the Shia minority in 2011 and 2012 in Eastern Province towns. In all seven trials, detainees alleged that confessions were extracted through torture, but judges quickly dismissed these allegations without investigation, admitted the confessions as evidence, and then convicted the detainees almost solely based on these confessions, sometimes handing down death sentences.

On March 7, Human Rights Watch issued a report that documented the Saudi criminal justice system mistreatment of Pakistani citizens involved in criminal cases. The violations included 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.

As a party to the Convention against Torture, Saudi Arabia must undertake “effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture.”

International human rights law protects other 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.

“It is great that the Saudi government wants to combat corruption, but its alleged tactics look more like extortion, and make a mockery of the rule of law,” Whitson said, “As the new government tries to sell its reformist credentials to the public, governments, and investors, they should take a hard, skeptical look at what actually happened in the Riyadh Ritz Carlton and its implications.”


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