A new counter-terrorism law in Saudi Arabia will entrench existing patterns of human rights violations and serve as a further tool to suppress peaceful political dissent, Amnesty International 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 Ministry of Interior broad new powers and legalizes a range of ongoing human rights violations against detainees.
“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,” said Said Boumedouha, Middle East and North Africa Programme Deputy Director at Amnesty International.
Amnesty International’s fears about this law are not recent. In 2011, the organization detailed its concerns about a leaked draft of the legislation, which highlighted the negative human rights impact such a law would have.
In a series of subsequent communications with the organization, the Saudi Arabian authorities sought to allay fears the law would be used to clamp down on legitimate dissent by saying it was still only a draft.
“Passing a law with so many serious flaws two years after identical issues with the earlier draft were pointed out does not bode well for the authorities’ plans to end long-standing violations in the name of counter-terrorism. 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,” said Said Boumedouha.
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 that directly or indirectly aim at “disturbing the public order of the state”, “destabilizing 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 International fears that such a broad definition allows the prosecution of any form of peaceful human rights activism as a terrorist crime punishable by law to long prison terms and even to death as the new law considers terrorism a most serious crime.
The new law also grants the Ministry of Interior wide powers with little or no judicial oversight. This includes 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 to appeal the decision. Indefinite detention in excess of a year is also allowed by the Specialized Criminal Court, which operates in secrecy.
“Legalizing prolonged incommunicado detention and blocking timely judicial challenges to detention is a recipe for systematic torture and other ill-treatment in custody,” said Said Boumedouha.
The enactment of the Law for the Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing, coming within months of Saudi Arabia’s Universal Periodic Review and its ascendancy to a seat on the United Nation’s Human Rights Council, shows utter disregard for international human right law and the UN mechanisms put in place for its protection.
There has been a marked deterioration in Saudi Arabia’s human rights situation in recent months. During 2013 Amnesty International documented dozens of cases of activists sentenced by security and criminal courts to long prison terms and travel bans. The authorities forced the few independent human rights NGOs to shut down, with their members facing lengthy prison sentences, often after grossly unfair trials.