Saudi Arabia 'detaining activists' on terrorism charges, says UN

Saudi Arabia 'detaining activists' on terrorism charges, says UN
A UN lawyer has accused Saudi Arabia of a long list of human rights violations including detaining and torturing free speech activists.
3 min read
05 May, 2017

UN - Ben Emmerson on Saudi

Saudi Arabia is using draconian anti-terror laws to jail regime opponents according to the UN's special rapporteur on human rights.

British lawyer Ben Emmerson concluded from his visit of suspected cases of torture and that activists were being jailed by secret, closed door courts.

Emmerson conducted an investigation into the kingdom's 2014 counter-terrorism law saying it contains an "unacceptably broad definition" of what is terrorism is.

This had allowed for peaceful human rights campaigners to be jailed under the laws with the special rapporteur to the UN's high commissioner on human rights saying the legislation does not comply with international law.

"I strongly condemn the use of counter-terrorism legislation and penal sanctions against individuals peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression," he told reporters in the kingdom.

Free speech

He said there should be an urgent review of all free speech defenders held under these laws or an immediate pardon for the detainees.

Emmerson said he had a list of nine "priority cases" which a UN group in 2015 said had been arbitrarily detained for exercising their rights to free speech and peaceful association.

These include Saudi blogger Raif Badawi and human rights lawyer Walid Albukhair.

"I am profoundly concerned" that they remain in detention, he said.

The British lawyer said attempts to interview these detainees were blocked by the government.

Most worryingly, he also alleged that torture had been used by law enforcement officials to "extract confessions".

Secret trials had been held at a special court which handles terrorism cases without lawyers present.

Saudi Arabia denied the torture allegations, Emmerson said.

Prolific executioner

Saudi Arabia is one of the world's most prolific executioners and some put to the sword included detainees convicted of terrorism.

Amnesty International reported that 156 people were put to death in Saudi Arabia last year.

On New Year's Day in 2016, Saudi Arabia carried out a mass execution of 47 people - including leading Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr - some sentenced to death on charges of terrorism.

Human rights groups said among those beheaded were political activists.

Emmerson reported "multiple due process violations" in one death penalty case, and said there may be other cases.

Yet he said standards of care at the kingdom's prisons for terrorist suspects "are amongst the highest in the world".

The kingdom can also be proud of its rehabilitation of terrorist suspects, added Emmerson, with a team of military experts.

War in Yemen

The lawyer also reviewed Saudi Arabia's involvement in the war against Yemeni rebels.

Saudi Arabia has conducted air strikes on areas controlled by Houthi and its allies in Yemen, but Emerson noted that some had led to civilian casualties and these must be investigated.

Emmerson reminded Saudi Arabia that it has an international legal obligation to conduct a probe "independent of the chain of command" when civilians are killed or injured in strikes and "the true civilian death toll made public".

Emmerson said Riyadh had made a significant contribution to the US-led air coalition against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.

"However, I am concerned at allegations that some of the most violent armed groups involved in jihad which have committed serious human rights violations [in Syria]," he said.

"[They] appear to have enjoyed various forms of support, financial and logistical, implicating sources inside Saudi Arabia."

He did not elaborate on which jihadi groups he was referring to but said the allegations come despite Riyadh's stated commitment to stem terrorist violence.

Saudi Arabia have been accused of supporting Salafi-inspired rebel group Jaish al-Islam, which operates in the Damascus suburbs.