The Saudi Arabian authorities have launched a sustained assault on human rights under the façade of countering terrorism, Amnesty International said in a new report published yesterday (21 July 2009).
Thousands of people have been arrested and detained in virtual secrecy, while others have been killed in uncertain circumstances. Hundreds more face secret and summary trials and possible execution. Many are reported to have been tortured in order to extract confessions or as punishment after conviction.
As recently as 8 July 2009, the Ministry of Justice announced that 330 people had been tried for terrorism offences with sentences ranging from fines to the death penalty. However, neither the names of those tried nor the details of the charges against them were disclosed, maintaining the extreme secrecy of the trial process.
"These unjust anti-terrorism measures have made an already dire human rights situation worse," said Malcolm Smart, Director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Programme. "The Saudi Arabian government has used its powerful international clout to get away with it. And the international community has failed to hold the government to account for these gross violations."
Of the thousands detained by the authorities, some are prisoners of conscience, targeted for their peaceful criticism of government policies. The majority are suspected supporters of Islamist groups or factions opposed to the Saudi Arabian government’s close links to the USA and other Western countries. Such groups have carried out a number of attacks targeting Westerners and others, and are officially dubbed as "misguided". Those detained also include people forcibly returned from Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and other countries.
"The abuses take place behind a wall of secrecy. Detainees are held with no idea of what is going to happen to them," said Malcolm Smart. "Most are held incommunicado for years without trial, and are denied access to lawyers and the courts to challenge the legality of their detention. This has a devastating effect on both the individuals who are detained and on their families."
The anti-terrorism measures adopted by the government since the attacks in the USA on 11 September 2001 have exacerbated long-standing human rights abuses in the country.
Arbitrary arrests and prolonged detention of political and security suspects without trial and without access to lawyers have been long-standing human rights problems in Saudi Arabia. However, the number of people being detained arbitrarily has risen from hundreds to thousands since 2001. Those arrested include Saudi Arabians and foreign nationals.
In July 2007, the Interior Minister reported that 9,000 security suspects had been detained between 2003 and 2007 and that 3,106 of them are still being held. Others have been moved to an official "re-education" programme, though it is unclear how they are selected and under what conditions they can obtain release.
Reported methods of torture and other ill-treatment include severe beatings with sticks, punching, and suspension from the ceiling, use of electric shocks and sleep deprivation. Flogging is also imposed as a legal punishment by itself or in addition to imprisonment, and sentences can include thousands of lashes.
The Amnesty International report highlights how trials of political or security detainees in Saudi Arabia take place in extreme secrecy and fail to meet international standards of fairness. In March this year, the government announced that the trials of 991 detainees accused of capital offences had begun in a special criminal court.
In many cases, defendants and their families are not informed of the progress of legal proceedings against them.
The anti-terrorism measures introduced since 2001 have set back the process of limited human rights reform in Saudi Arabia. Combined with severe repression of all forms of dissent and a weak human rights framework, there is now an almost complete lack of protection of freedoms and rights.