Saudi Arabia and Egypt grant impunity with military pardons

Saudi Arabia and Egypt grant impunity with military pardons
Analysis: The military pardons issued by Saudi Arabia and Egypt are effectively an admission of misconduct, writes Hannah Porter.
5 min read
09 August, 2018
Those selected would be afforded special privileges, including amnesty for any alleged rights abuses [Anadolu]
Last month saw a boost in privileges and protections for those serving in authoritarian armies. 

Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt issued separate decisions granting officers and soldiers immunity from prosecution for their alleged participation in human rights violations, whether on Yemen's frontlines or during the period of Egypt's constitutional disruption from 2013 to 2016.

On 3 July, Egypt's parliament overwhelmingly approved a draft law that grants President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi the right to recall senior commanders of the armed forces for life-long service.

Those selected would be afforded special privileges, including amnesty for any alleged human rights abuses that were committed in the years between President Morsi's overthrow on 3 July, 2013 and the resumption of parliamentary activity on 10 January, 2016.

The most notable event during this period, and one that military officers would likely seek legal immunity from, was the Rabaa Massacre of 14 August, 2013, when forces from Egypt's Interior Ministry violently dispersed demonstrators who were holding sit-ins at Cairo's Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nahda squares to protest Morsi's ouster.

Security forces opened fire on tens of thousands of demonstrators, 
killing over 1,150, according to Human Rights Watch. 

Many thousands more were injured and tens of thousands arrested in the months following the demonstration. Human Rights Watch called the event "one of the world's largest killing of demonstrators in a single day in recent history".

For now, it is unlikely that any Saudi or Egyptian official will stand trial for human rights violations

Five years later, no official has been held accountable for the massacre, despite overwhelming evidence that excessive force was used. The 3 July law pushes justice even farther out of reach, as military commanders will now face charges only if the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces permits it.

This new law also grants selected military officers immunity abroad, which is normally afforded only to diplomats. Furthermore, under Egyptian law, active and reserve military are not allowed to run for office, meaning that this decision will allow Sisi to strategically select and 'neutralise' potential political opponents.

In Saudi Arabia, King Salman bin Abdulaziz issued a royal decree on 10 July that broadly states that soldiers serving in Operation Restoring Hope - the ongoing Saudi-led campaign in Yemen which seeks to dislodge Houthi rebels - are pardoned from all military and disciplinary penalties.

Saudi Arabia has been charged repeatedly with violating human rights and international law in Yemen. The coalition headed by the kingdom has launched airstrikes on non-military targets, ranging from water purification plants and factories, to weddings and funerals.

On 14 August 2013 Egyptian security forces and army under the command of general Sisi raided two camps of protesters. [Getty]

The war, which is in its fourth year, has displaced millions of Yemenis, unleashed the largest cholera epidemic in recorded history, and resulted in many times more deaths than the 10,000 figure that is normally cited.

A statement by the Saudi Press Agency announced King Salman's decree is ostensibly meant to honour "the heroics and sacrifices" of Saudi servicemen, by "paying due attention to what would bring joy and delight to the hearts of [the soldiers] and their families."

Years of international criticism of the bungled war in Yemen may have put the royal family on the defensive, prompting them to issue flowery declarations of the military's righteousness and heroism.

Yet it is hard to interpret the decree as anything other than an effective admission of misconduct by Saudi forces. It is not the innocent who typically require pardons.

"By giving the green light for future violations, this decree is further proof that [Saudi leadership] is responsible for these crimes," explains President of Yemen's Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, Radhiya al-Mutawakkil.

"Moreover, it is an admission that such violations have indeed been committed by Saudi commanders in Yemen."

Haitham al-Hariri, a member of parliament's opposition bloc in Egypt, echoed the same sentiment in an interview with Al-Monitor: "It is as if the president [Sisi] is implicitly declaring that these leaders have committed violations that deserve criminal trials both inside and outside Egypt."

"Why now?" Mohamed Anwar Sadat (chairman of Egypt's Reform and Development party and nephew of the country's former president) asks in a written statement. "Is there something on the horizon?... Is there something [that happened] during that period, in Egypt or abroad, that some of the commanders would need to seek immunity from…?"

According to al-Mutawakkil, this development in Saudi Arabia "demonstrates an urgent need to open up international court proceedings for war crimes in Yemen, which would bring justice and impartiality to the victims, and place limits on the tradition of impunity that the Saudi regime is trying to entrench."

For now, it is unlikely that any Saudi or Egyptian official will stand trial for human rights violations. It will remain the civilians who face the consequences of these crimes.

Last Saturday, an Egyptian court was scheduled to issue its final ruling in a mass trial of 739 civilians who participated in, or have ties to, the Rabaa demonstrations. Sentencing was postponed due to security concerns.

It will be up to the international community to push back

Charges include murder and incitement of violence. Some of the defendants are facing the death penalty, including Mahmoud Abu Zeid, known as Shawkan, an award-winning Egyptian photojournalist who was arrested while taking pictures of the 2013 massacre by security forces.

Meanwhile, the Saudi-led coalition continues to launch deadly airstrikes on Yemeni civilians with impunity. On Thursday, dozens of children under the age of 15 were killed in the northern province of Saada when coalition war planes targeted their school bus. In previous weeks, sanitation facilities and warehouses storing humanitarian supplies in the embattled Hodeidah have also been bombed.

With full amnesty granted domestically to those responsible for such crimes, it will be up to the international community to push back in order to ensure justice for the living and the dead.

Al-Mutawakkil from Mwatana did express some optimism on this point. "The day will come when we will see an arrest warrant issued by the international court for these commanders because of the serious crimes that took place under their watch, in Yemen and elsewhere."

Hannah Porter is a researcher and journalist focused on Yemen and the Gulf. She recently completed her MA at the University of Chicago where she wrote her thesis on the Houthi movement.

Follow her on Twitter: @hannaheporter