A new counter-terrorism law in Saudi Arabia will serve as a further tool to suppress peaceful political dissent and provides a “recipe for systematic torture”, Amnesty International has said after analysing the legislation.
The Law for the Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing, which took effect on 1 February, uses an overly vague definition of terrorism, gives the Saudi Ministry of Interior broad new powers, and legalises a range of ongoing human rights violations against detainees.
Amnesty’s fears date back to 2011 when the organisation outlined its concerns over a leaked draft of the legislation. In a series of subsequent communications with Amnesty, the Saudi authorities sought to allay fears the law would be used to clamp down on legitimate dissent by saying it was still only a draft. Amnesty believes the law’s enactment, coming only months after the country’s ascendancy to a seat on the United Nation’s Human Rights Council, shows an utter disregard for international human rights law and the UN mechanisms put in place for its protection.
Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Said Boumedouha said:
“This disturbing new law confirms our worst fears - that the Saudi Arabian authorities are seeking legal cover to entrench their ability to crack down on peaceful dissent and silence human rights defenders.
“The changes made to the law since 2011 have done little to diminish the potentially devastating impact on human rights.
“The legislation just seems to codify the Ministry of Interior’s repressive tactics, which Amnesty International has documented for years.
“Legalising prolonged incommunicado detention and blocking timely judicial challenges to detention is a recipe for systematic torture and other ill-treatment in custody.”
Overly vague definition
The definition of terrorist crimes used in the new law is overly vague and could be abused by the authorities to crack down on peaceful dissent. Among the offences labelled terrorism are any acts directly or indirectly aimed at “disturbing the public order of the state”, “destabilising the security of society, or the stability of the state”, “endangering its national unity”, “revoking the basic law of governance or any of its articles”, or “harming the reputation of the state or its standing”.
Similar charges were used against almost all Saudi Arabian human rights defenders and civil society activists arrested and prosecuted in 2013. Amnesty fears that such a broad definition allows the prosecution of any form of peaceful human rights activism as a terrorist crime punishable by long prison terms and even death.
Broad new powers
The new law also grants the country’s Ministry of Interior wide powers with little or no judicial oversight. These include the ability to order searches, seizures, arrests and detentions of suspects, with virtual impunity. Article 6 of the law states that suspects can be held for 90 days with no contact with the outside world beyond a single phone call to their family. This includes not having access to a lawyer during interrogations.
The law also allows the Ministry of Interior to hold terror suspects without charge or trial for six months - renewable to a year - without the ability for a detainee to appeal against the decision. Indefinite detention in excess of a year is also allowed by the Specialised Criminal Court, which operates in secrecy.
There has been a marked deterioration in Saudi Arabia’s human rights situation in recent months. Last year Amnesty documented dozens of cases of activists sentenced by security and criminal courts to long prison terms and travel bans. Meanwhile, the authorities forced the few independent human rights NGOs to shut down, with their members facing lengthy prison sentences, often after grossly unfair trials.