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Saudi Arabia: counter-terrorism court used to crush peaceful opposition - new report

People brought before the court are frequently subjected to torture beforehand © Amnesty International

Shia minority and human rights activists targeted by the Specialised Criminal Court

Grossly unfair trials often involve ‘confessions’ extracted under torture

‘Our research gives the lie to the shiny new reformist image Saudi Arabia is trying to cultivate’ - Heba Morayef

A new report published by Amnesty International today shows how the Saudi Arabian authorities are using a counter-terrorism court - the Specialised Criminal Court - as a weapon to systematically silence peaceful opposition in the country. 

Charges used in proceedings in the court frequently include “disobeying the ruler”, “questioning the integrity of officials and the judicial system”, “inciting disorder by calling for demonstrations” and “forming an unlicensed organisation”.

Established in October 2008 to try those accused of terrorism-related offences, since 2011 the court has instead been used to systematically prosecute people on vague charges which often equate peaceful political activities with terrorism.

Amnesty’s 53-page report - Muzzling Critical Voices: Politicised trials before Saudi Arabia’s Specialised Criminal Court - documents the cases of 95 individuals, mostly men, who were tried, sentenced or remain on trial before the court between 2011 and 2019. Fifty-two are now serving lengthy prison sentences of up to 30 years.

Since 2011, more than 100 Saudi Arabian Shia Muslims have been brought before the court in relation to peaceful criticism of the Government in speeches or on social media, or participation in anti-government protests. They have been tried on vague charges ranging from organising or supporting protests, to alleged involvement in violent attacks and spying for Iran.

Amnesty closely reviewed eight Specialised Criminal Court trials of 68 Shia defendants (most prosecuted for taking part in anti-government protests), and of 27 individuals prosecuted for their peaceful human rights activism. In all 95 cases, Amnesty concluded that the trials were grossly unfair. Some of the defendants were sentenced to death.

Torture-tainted ‘confessions’

One of the most sinister aspects of the court is its unquestioning reliance on torture-tainted “confessions”. At least 28 Shias have been executed since 2016, many of whom were sentenced to death by the court based solely on such “confessions”. Several Shias, including young men tried for “crimes” they were accused of committing as minors, are now at imminent risk of execution following unfair trials before the court.

Others who remain on trial before the court include Salman al-Awda, a reformist religious cleric arrested in 2017, who faces the death penalty for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression. Amnesty has documented the trials and sentencing of 27 such individuals by the court. It considers 22 of the 27 those still detained to be prisoners of conscience and calls for their immediate and unconditional release.

Amnesty wrote to the Saudi authorities on 12 December about the report’s findings - receiving a response from Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commission that summarised relevant laws and procedures but ignored all the issues raised in the report.

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Regional Director, said:

“The Saudi Arabian government exploits the Specialised Criminal Court to create a false aura of legality around its abuse of the counter-terror law to silence its critics.

“Every stage of the Specialised Criminal Court’s judicial process is tainted with human rights abuses - from the denial of access to a lawyer, to incommunicado detention, to convictions based solely on so-called ‘confessions’ extracted through torture.

“Our research gives the lie to the shiny new reformist image Saudi Arabia is trying to cultivate, exposing how the Government uses a court like the Specialised Criminal Court in the ruthless suppression of those who are courageous enough to voice opposition, defend human rights or call for meaningful reforms.

“If the King and Crown Prince want to show they are serious about reforms, they should as a first step immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience, ensure their convictions and sentences are quashed, and declare an official moratorium on all executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty.”

Death sentences against Shia defendants

The Specialised Criminal Court has played a major part in the suppression of the Shia minority in Eastern Province. On 2 January 2016, the authorities announced that a Shia cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, known for his critical stance towards the Government, had been executed, sparking protests in the province. In July 2017, Youssuf al-Muhsikhass, who was sentenced to death following an unfair trial, was executed with three other Shia men, and in April last year a mass execution of 37 men, the majority of them Shia, was carried out.

The Specialised Criminal Court has also sentenced to death several young Shia men for crimes committed when they were below 18 years of age following “confessions” extracted through torture or coercion. Three juveniles - Ali al-Nimr, Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawood al-Marhoon, aged 17, 16 and 17 respectively - were arrested in 2012 in relation to their participation in anti-government protests. The three are at imminent risk of execution after they were sentenced to death following unfair trials before the court.

Members of independent human rights groups targeted

Among those who have been prosecuted by the court are founding members of independent human rights groups shut down by the authorities in 2013. For example, all 11 members of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association have been tried and sentenced in recent years for their human rights work.


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