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Families of Palestinians held in jails in Saudi Arabia, hold placards in Arabic that read, "Release our sons in Saudi prisons, and No for the policy of isolation and torture for the prisoners in Saudi jails" during a protest, in front of the International Committee of the Red Cross office, in Gaza, Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019.  © 2019 AP Photo/Adel Hana

(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia’s mass trial of 68 Jordanian and Palestinian residents raises serious due process concerns amid accusations of abuse, Human Rights Watch said today. In March 2018, Saudi authorities carried out a wave of arrests targeting a group of long-term Palestinian and Jordanian residents in the country based on vague allegations of links with an unnamed “terrorist organization.”

After holding some of the detainees for nearly two years without charge, Saudi authorities began a mass trial behind closed doors on March 8, 2020 at the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh. The charges, said family members who saw portions of the charge sheets, included “belonging to” and “supporting” a “terrorist organization,” which was not named. They were not able to obtain additional details about the specific accusations or evidence from the partial charge sheets that Saudi authorities made available at the first trial session.

“Saudi Arabia’s long record of unfair trails raises the specter that Jordanians and Palestinians will be railroaded on serious charges and face severe penalties even though some have alleged serious abuses,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “At a time when Covid-19 presents acute dangers to prisoners, Saudi Arabia should consider alternatives to detention, particularly for those in pretrial detention.”

Human Rights Watch spoke to six family members of seven defendants, all of whom asked not the be named, fearing reprisals against them or their imprisoned relatives. The family members said that Saudi security services arrested five of the detainees during raids on their homes beginning in 2018 and arrested two others at airports as they attempted to leave the country. Family members of defendants described a range of abuses by Saudi authorities following the arrests, including enforced disappearances, long-term solitary confinement, and torture.

Two family members said that they were present during house raids in February and April 2019. “A large number [security forces] entered wearing masks, with guns and cameras, like they were going to a battle,” one said. She said that security forces were still there when her children returned from school. She said her eldest daughter, age 14, later told her that when she returned, a member of the security forces with a gun at his side questioned her about her father. Her 9-year-old daughter “was crying because they were terrifying, the way they were all over the house and their looks,” their mother said. “I had to tell her that they’re looking for a thief.”

In another case, a family member said that on the night of the arrest, around 4 a.m., four men wearing civilian clothes knocked on the door saying that his relative’s car had been damaged: “When he [the defendant] came to speak with them, they identified themselves [as] members of the state security apparatus. They told him he must come with them but that he would be back in a few hours.” The authorities refused for three months to tell his family where he was.

All six family members said that they were unable to learn the status or locations of their detained relatives for weeks, and as long as six months. Some said that family members checked with various intelligence prisons but that the authorities denied their relatives were there. Some found later that their relatives were in those prisons.

Enforced disappearances are defined under international law as the arrest or detention of a person by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts.

Some family members said that their relatives told them they were held for between two and six months in solitary confinement, then transferred to group prison cells, after which the authorities allowed visits and phone calls. One defendant detained in April 2019 who remained in solitary confinement for 3 months told his family during their first visit in July that during that period, the authorities only interrogated him 3 times, for about 20 minutes each.

Three family members said that their relatives told them during prison visits that the authorities tortured them during interrogations. One said that after their relative was held incommunicado for 23 days, they were allowed a family visit, but then communication stopped for 2 months. The detainee was finally able to tell his family that he had been tortured in various places, including a hotel room and an underground location. “He said that they used to wake him up at 5 a.m. to put his head in hot water,” the person’s relative said. “Sometimes they would leave him hanging upside down for two days.”

Some family members said it was hard to maintain contact with their detained relative. The authorities cut off phone calls and visits for three defendants in August 2019 without explanation, family members said. Others said that phone calls are usually restricted to two or five minutes.  

A witness who was at a March 8 hearing in the mass trial told Human Rights Watch that the judge entered the court room at 11:30 a.m. and left at 11:50 a.m. He said that authorities brought defendants in front of the judge, who asked whether they were guilty, and only then handed them partial versions of their charge sheets that did not include evidence or the basis of the charges. Human Rights Watch was unable to obtain copies of the charge sheets, but family members said that the sheets cited articles 32, 33, 38, 43, 47, and 53 of Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism law, all of which lay out penalties for involvement with terrorist organizations.

Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism law of 2017 includes vague and overly broad definitions of acts of terrorism, in some cases punishable by death. The then-United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism concluded after a visit to Saudi Arabia in 2017 that he was “concerned about the unacceptably broad definition of terrorism and the use of Saudi Arabia’s 2014 counter-terrorism law.” He also expressed “serious concern over allegations of torture made by terrorism suspects.”

Families of defendants in the current mass trial expressed serious concerns about the possible outbreak of Covid-19 in Saudi prisons and are calling for their release. Saudi Arabia has recorded 2,795 cases of Covid-19. On April 3, Amnesty International reported that one defendant associated with the case, Mohammed al-Khudari, 82, the former representative of Hamas to Saudi Arabia, has cancer.

The Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia ratified in 2009, 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.” The Charter also says that trials should be public.

“Saudi Arabia should immediately make clear the specific accusations and underlying evidence against defendants to the detainees and their families,” Page said. 

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