VIII. Torture, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment

Under the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which it acceded in 1997, Saudi Arabia is obliged to “take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture”354 as well as to prevent “other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture.”355

Article 2 of the Saudi Law of Criminal Procedure establishes that persons arrested shall not be subjected to “bodily or moral harm” or “any torture or degrading treatment.”356 Article 35 formulates a positive obligation on officials to “treat [a person arrested in flagrante delicto] in a way to preserve his dignity.”357 However, Article 2 and subsequent provisions of the LCP do not define the terms “torture” and “degrading treatment” or provide legal sanction for practicing torture.

Due process rights are an important safeguard against ill-treatment in custody. Where detainees can exercise their right to communicate with the outside world, to appoint a lawyer, and to seek judicial review of the lawfulness of their detention, the risk that abuse during detention will be exposed becomes much higher.

But procedural safeguards alone are not enough to stop ill-treatment. Two other deterrent elements are important. First, the law should criminalize specific acts of ill-treatment and make inadmissible any evidence obtained from such practices.358 This is especially important to protect a detainee’s right not to incriminate him or herself. The UN special rapporteur on the independence of the judiciary remarked in his report on Saudi Arabia, “Reliance on confessional evidence exacerbates the problems of prolonged detention, placing pressure on the investigator to obtain a confession from the accused.”359

Fair trial standards provide that, “it shall be prohibited to take undue advantage of the situation of a detained or imprisoned person for the purpose of compelling him to confess, to incriminate himself otherwise or to testify against any other person.” Furthermore, “No detained person while being interrogated shall be subject to violence, threats or methods of interrogation which impair his capacity of decision or his judgment.”360

Article 102 of the LCP seems to echo international legal prohibitions on mistreatment of prisoners, stating,

The interrogation shall be conducted in a manner that does not affect the will of the accused in making his statements. The accused shall not be asked to take an oath nor shall he be subjected to any coercive measures. He shall not be interrogated outside the location of the investigation bureau except in an emergency to be determined by the Investigator.361

However, other sections of Saudi law open the door to such mistreatment. Article 34 of the LCP puts pressure on the suspect to confess, by continuing a suspect’s detention “if the accused fails to establish his innocence.”362 Article 101 of the LCP suggests that in case of the defendant’s refusal “to sign [his or her statements under interrogation], a note to that effect shall be entered into the record.”363

Second, in international law prosecutors must pursue all incidents of ill-treatment and prosecute the perpetrators, notwithstanding their status, and judges must not shy from ruling against officials. The Principles on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2000, known as the “Istanbul Principles,” provide authoritative guidance on what the obligation to investigate torture requires. 364 International standards require that claims of ill-treatment are independently investigated to ensure that such investigations are thorough, effective, and credible.365 Principle 3b of the Istanbul Principles provides that persons “potentially implicated in torture or ill-treatment shall be removed from any position of control or power, whether direct or indirect, over complainants, witnesses and their families, as well as those conducting the investigation.” The Istanbul Principles further recognize that circumstances may dictate that investigations be carried out by independent commissions or similar entities.

The threshold for starting an investigation—“reasonable grounds”—does not require that the complainant or victim be able to adduce irrefutable evidence of torture. Article 13 of the Convention against Torture obliges states to “ensure that any individual who alleges he has been subjected to torture in any territory under its jurisdiction has the right to complain to, and to have his case promptly and impartially examined by, its competent authorities.”366

Saudi law contains significant gaps in the investigation of claims of torture and ill-treatment, the protection of those who make such claims, and their right to a remedy. Article 38 of the LCP provides detainees with the right to submit complaints—presumably including complaints about torture under interrogation—to the Bureau of Investigation and Public Prosecutions. Prosecutors serve under the Ministry of Interior and are thus not fully independent of law enforcement authorities.

Finally, Article 14.1. of the Convention against Torture requires states to provide victims of torture redress, compensation, and rehabilitation.367

Coerced Confessions

In a procedure called “confirmation of statements” (tasdiq al-aqwal), a defendant is required to verify statements he or she made during interrogation. The defendant does not always see a judge during this process, which consists of affixing a fingerprint to written statements for authentication and later use in court, and often denotes the end of formal interrogation. Once verified, the statements are entered as evidence, and judges do not question their veracity.

Human Rights Watch learned of repeated and consistent accounts of how detainees were ill-treated and forced to sign confessions that were later used at trial.

At al-Hair prison, Human Rights Watch interviewed a group of eight prisoners who all said that interrogators had routinely beaten them at the police station—with ashtrays, shoes, fists, sticks, and electrical cables—in order to encourage quick confessions. They said that they were hung from their arms or legs and/or doused with cold water. One prisoner claimed that officers beat him so badly he was hospitalized, then beat him again when he was returned from the hospital.368 They also said that they had initially refused to confess to the crime they were accused of and had then been transferred to the criminal evidence (forensics) section, for further interrogation. Other prisoners at al-Ha’ir prison told Human Rights Watch that the criminal evidence (forensics) department, where their interrogations took place, was a separate “confession extraction center,” where the authorities send suspects who do not confess at the police station.369

The group of eight prisoners claimed that medical forms recording their injuries routinely represented their injuries as “occupational accidents.”370 The eight prisoners all agreed that the worst form of pressure came from the police using their families to force them to confess.371

Refusing to confess also brought the prospect of solitary confinement at a police station in special 1 x 1.5 meter cells, prisoners in al-Ha’ir told Human Rights Watch.372  In this cell block, solitary confinement stays ranged from nine days to three months. Most detainees claimed to have been detained there for periods of between one and two months.

One detainee in al-Ha’ir, Amjad, told Human Rights Watch how increasing pressure, including psychological and physical abuse, led him to confess. At the police station

they made my life difficult because I refused to confess. They accused me of rape, told me they had witnesses and laboratory evidence. “So why do you need me to confess?” I asked. At the police station, they kept me in a one-meter by one-and-a-half-meter room and said they would keep me there until I confessed. I spent two months isolated in that cell, chained to the bed for three days of the week, and I refused to confess. After the two months, they took me to the criminal evidence [forensics] section [al-adilla al-jina’iya]. The conditions were even worse than the prison. The cell was in a confined basement. I spent five days there and they beat me until I confessed. The beat me on my feet, under my feet; they whipped me on my back.373

When the mabahith interrogated Badi on charges of belonging to a political party, he told Human Rights Watch that he confessed under torture. After the holiday of Eid al-Fitr in January 1999,

They bent my right hand backwards, almost all the way, I was chained to the cell bars for three days. I got toilet breaks, but did not sleep. I did not see anyone else during that time. The cell was closed and there was a camera inside. The cell was one by two meters, without a toilet or a bed. At first I refused to answer their questions … Then the falaqa [beatings on the soles of the feet] began. They put a stick over two desks, slipped it under my knees, with my arms tied below them. So I confessed. I spent four months in solitary confinement, and then went to a communal cell, with Afghanistan veterans. I did not pray, and they attacked me, so I went back into solitary. After one year, they released me.374

Jihad appealed his conviction in November 2006 for having met a suspected weapons smuggler, on the grounds that it was based solely on the general prosecutor’s allegations, which repeated a confession coerced during interrogation. Human Rights Watch examined the appeal pleadings which set out his claim as to how mabahith officers attacked him, insulting, slandering and defaming him, kicking him in the face with heavy boots, then hitting him with a stick over all his body, before he was interrogated, and before he knew the reason for his arrest. During the interrogation, which lasted several weeks, law enforcement officers broke his jaw by inserting a boot into his mouth, and “until blood ran from his face and most of his body parts,” according to a statement prepared by his lawyer.375

When Human Rights Watch met him, Fawwaz had been in Najran General Prison awaiting trial since his arrest on March 12, 2005, on charges of concealing a criminal. He told us that he does not deny that he met the cashier for al-Ahli company one week after the cashier stole money from the company, but said that he had no role in the theft. Fawwaz told Human Rights Watch that he was severely beaten during his three months in the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) where CID officers and the public prosecutor interrogated him. Besides beatings, he alleges officers deprived him of sleep for prolonged periods of time. He said he confessed as a result of torture, and had verified his statements in the confirmation of statements (tasdiq al-aqwal) procedure. He was afraid the court would now use his notarized, but coerced statements.376

Usama told Human Rights Watch a similar story of a coerced confession later notarized in a quick court procedure. Police arrested Usama at a checkpoint shortly after an incident involving shots fired at a large demonstration outside the governor’s residence in Najran in April 2000. Usama described sexual threats, insults to his faith, beatings, being forced into stress positions for extended periods, and sleep deprivation he endured seven years ago. He told Human Rights Watch,

I confessed that I shot in the air, that I set vehicles on fire. After I finished writing, a few minutes later, we went to the judge’s house at one o’clock in the morning. We were in a minibus, and the judge came to the bus and asked me, “Are those your words?” I said, “it is my writing, but not my words, I was tortured,” and pleaded with him to rescue me from the interrogation. He told me only to say the truth, and went away. All along, my interrogator was smiling at the judge and scowling at me, in the minibus.

Usama continued,

I went back to the mabahith. They made me stand for one entire day. The next day, my three interrogators and two others came into a room and started beating me. Then they started telling me the answers they wanted me to fill in. I wrote another set of words. Now it was that Abdullah and I had fired into the air. The next day, we went to the Summary Court, to another judge, who asked, “Are these your words?” This time, I said yes.377

Ebot, the Cameroonian national in jail since 2006, told Human Rights Watch that during his two months and 20 days at a police station, police officers twice beat him so badly he required hospitalization. Ebot explained that the police brought him to the hospital’s back entrance and told the nurse who treated him while he was in hand and foot shackles that Ebot had fallen in his cell. He said that he had confessed after the second beating and was taken to a court clerk at Jeddah’s Partial Court on Tahliya Street two days later, where the clerk told him there was nothing he could do about his outwardly visible injuries. The clerk took Ebot’s statement to a judge, returned it, and affixed Ebot’s fingerprint as authentication.378

354 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Convention against Torture), adopted December 10, 1984, G.A. res. 39/46, annex, 39 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 51) at 197, U.N. Doc. A/39/51 (1984), entered into force June 26, 1987, art. 2.

355 Ibid., art. 16.

356 Law of Criminal Procedure, art. 2.

357 Ibid,, art. 35.

358 “Any statement which is established to have been made as a result of torture shall not be invoked as evidence in any proceedings, except against a person accused of torture as evidence that the statement was made.” Convention against Torture, art. 15.

359 UN Commission on Human Rights, Report by the Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Civil and Political Rights, Including the Questions of Independence of the Judiciary, Administration of Justice, Impunity, Dato’ Param Cumaraswamy, E/CN.4/2003/65/Add.3, January 14, 2003, para. 100.

360 Body of Principles, principle 21.

361 Law of Criminal Procedure, art. 102.

362 Ibid., art. 34.

363 Ibid, art. 101.

364 Principles on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Istanbul Principles), United Nations General Assembly Resolution 55/89, Annex 1, December 4, 2000.

365 The Convention against Torture, article 12, requires each state party to “ensure that its competent authorities proceed to a prompt and impartial investigation, wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed.” According to the Istanbul Principles (principle 5(a)), an independent commission of inquiry is called for “[i]n cases in which the established investigative procedures are inadequate because of insufficient expertise or suspected bias, or because of the apparent existence of a pattern of abuse or for other substantial reasons.” 

366 The Convention against Torture, article 13, states, “Steps shall be taken to ensure that the complainant and witnesses are protected against all ill-treatment or intimidation as a consequence of his complaint or any evidence given.”

367 Convention against Torture, art. 41.1.

368 Human Rights Watch interviews with detainees at al-Ha’ir Correctional Facility, November 30, 2006.

369 Ibid.

370 Ibid.

371 Ibid.

372 Ibid.

373 Human Rights Watch interview with Amjad, a detainee in al-Ha’ir Correctional Facility, November 30, 2006.

374 Human Rights Watch interview with Badi, December 7, 2006.

375 Jihad, Appeal against judge Fahd bin Abdullah al-Saghir’s verdict 179/2, November 2, 2006. Prepared by lawyer Isma’il.

376 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Fawwaz, Najran, December 15, 2006.

377 Human Rights Watch interview with Usama, December 14, 2006.

378 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ebot, March 4, 2007.