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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 is detaining thousands of people for more than six months, in some cases for over a decade, without referring them to courts for criminal proceedings. Saudi Arabia’s attorney general should promptly charge or release all criminal defendants and stop holding people arbitrarily.

Human Rights Watch analyzed data from a public online Interior Ministry database, which revealed that authorities have detained 2,305 people who are under investigation for more than six months without referring them to a judge. The number held for excessively long periods has apparently increased dramatically in recent years. A similar Human Rights Watch analysis in May 2014 revealed that only 293 people had been held under investigation for that period.

“If Saudi authorities can hold a detainee for months on end with no charges, it’s clear that the Saudi criminal justice system remains broken and unjust, and it only seems to be getting worse,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It seems that MBS’s ‘Vision2030’ plan better describes the length of detentions without charge than an aspirational time horizon for reforms.”

Saudi Arabia’s use of arbitrary detention has faced increasing scrutiny since the November 4, 2017 mass arrest of 381 people on corruption allegations. The arrests 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.

Saudi Arabia’s Law of Criminal Procedure provides that a person may be detained without charge for a maximum of five days, renewable up to six months by an order of the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution (now Public Prosecution). After six months, the law requires that a detainee “be directly transferred to the competent court, or be released.”

The Interior Ministry created the “Communication Window” online database in 2013. It does not identify detainees by name but includes their initials, nationality, type of identification, the last five digits of their foreign passport or Saudi identification numbers, the date they were detained, and their case status.

Later that year the Saudi Embassy in London sent Human Rights Watch a letter in which it said: “[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.”

The portal offers six possible case statuses: “under investigation,” “case file with the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution,” “case file under judicial review,” “in the process of completing procedures to refer to the prosecution to enforce directives in the case,” “convicted,” and “convicted subject to appeal.” Of these, all but “convicted” and “convicted subject to appeal” could indicate pretrial detention.

Human Rights Watch analyzed the data on April 2, which was updated through March 31. Of the 5,314 people in the database, 3,380 had been held for over six months without a conviction or their “case file under judicial review,” including 2,949 for more than a year and 770 for over three years. The database indicated Saudi authorities were holding 2,305 people “under investigation” for more than six months, 1,875 for more than a year, and 251 for over three years.

Saudi authorities have held one Saudi citizen without a conviction since September 2003 and another “under investigation” since December 2006. Of the 251 held “under investigation” for over three years, 233 are Saudis.

“We’ve reverted to a Saudi version of Kafka when authorities detain citizens for over a decade without charge because they are ‘under investigation’,” Whitson said. “This effectively means that Saudi authorities can detain and jail anyone they want by claiming they are investigating them, however endless the investigation.”

The database does not provide information on whether the authorities have allowed detainees to seek release on bail or a similar system. Nor did it disclose whether authorities had charged formally with a crime those detainees whose cases had been referred to the office of Public Prosecution or brought them before a judge.

Human Rights Watch wrote to Sheikh Saud Al-Mojeb, the Saudi attorney general, on February 1 seeking his explanation for the high number of cases of apparent arbitrary detention, but received no response.

Human Rights Watch has documented arbitrary detention by Saudi authorities for years. The 2014 review revealed much lower numbers indicative of arbitrary detention. The data showed 2,766 total people in detention, including 293 apparently held for over six months without the cases being referred to the judiciary, 16 of them apparently for over two years, and one for over 10 years.

The United Nations 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 due process, including for a prompt hearing before a judge following the initial detention. 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. The charter says that, “Pre-trial detention shall in no case be the general rule.”

Extended detention without charge or trial or without an appearance before a judge is arbitrary, and violates both Saudi law and international human rights standards.

“Mohammad bin Salman’s promises to modernize and strengthen the rule of law mean very little when the authorities can lock away thousands of people for years and throw away the key,” Whitson said.

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