Thursday, July 28, 2005


By William Fisher

Human Rights Watch is calling on Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah to pardon three jailed advocates of peaceful reform and urging President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria to “show the world that he is serious about pursuing justice,” and “ensure that police torturers are held accountable for their crimes.”

In Saudi Arabia, an appellate court in Riyadh upheld harsh prison terms of between six and nine years for the three after they attempted to circulate a petition calling for a constitutional monarchy in Saudi Arabia.

HRW said, “The three men were among 12 petitioners arrested in March 2004. Over the following weeks, Saudi security forces pressured the detainees to sign a pledge to stop all future political petition activity in return for their release. The government released the nine detainees who signed the pledge, but continued with its prosecution of `Ali al-Dumaini, Dr. Matruk al-Falih and Dr. Abdullah al-Hamid because they refused.”

The advocacy group said the government prosecuted the men on charges “that had no legal basis”, and “denied the men basic due process rights.“ The court refused to grant the men their request for a public trial, insisting on holding all sessions behind closed doors.

It added that the general court judge denied the men access to counsel of their choice, and imprisoned the lead lawyer, Abd al-Rahman al-Lahim, in November 2004 after he spoke on television about the case. He remains in jail without charge.

A pardon from the Crown Prince is the only legal remedy open to the imprisoned activists.

Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East and North Africa director, said “Saudi judges seem unable or unwilling to protect Saudi citizens from arbitrary detention when they try to exercise basic rights like free speech. Instead, they have backed the government’s relentless repression of all peaceful political criticism.”

She charged that the verdict “did not specify which laws the defendants had violated, but found that they had “address[ed] the public and appeal[ed] to it in respect of critical issues concerning the system of rule” and engaged in “criticism of the people charged with authority in the Islamic regime” in a manner “contrary to the principle of mutual advice with the ruler.” None of these charges is codified as a punishable offense under Saudi law, which follows Islamic law, or shari`a.

“The government is relying on vaguely defined offenses that it can apply arbitrarily to silence citizens critical of the government,” Whitson said.

“The Saudi Foreign Minister publicly stated his view that Saudi Arabia would become a constitutional monarchy, but three months later the government jailed these ordinary citizens for advocating exactly this.”

On the Nigeria issue, Peter Takirambudde, executive director of HRW’s Africa Division, said that “Despite Nigeria’s progress on democratic reforms, Nigerian police routinely commit brutal acts of torture that have endured since the country’s era of military rule.

In a new report, HRW said, “For too long, the police in Nigeria have gotten away with murder and brutality."

It noted that “The United States and Britain have invested millions in police reform initiatives in Nigeria, but police practices have changed little since the end of military rule,” said Takirambudde. “Diplomatic relations have taken precedence over concern for human rights for too long. It’s time the British and the U.S. governments conditioned further aid to the police to measurable improvements in police conduct.”

The 76-page report, “‘Rest in Pieces’: Police Torture and Deaths in Custody in Nigeria,” said that “Across Nigeria, both senior and lower-level police officers routinely commit or order the torture and mistreatment of criminal suspects. Human Rights Watch urged foreign governments funding police reform in Nigeria to be more critical about police abuses, such as torture.

The report is based on over 50 interviews with victims and witnesses of torture and is the first comprehensive study on the subject. It documents brutal acts of torture and ill treatment in police custody, dozens of which resulted in death.

“If President Olusegun Obasanjo wants to show the world that he is serious about pursuing justice, he should ensure that police torturers are held accountable for their crimes,” HRW said.

It reported that most victims were arrested within the context of an aggressive government campaign against common crime and were tortured to obtain confessions. They were tortured in local and state police stations across Nigeria, often in interrogation rooms especially equipped for the purpose.

Forms of torture documented by Human Rights Watch include the tying of arms and legs behind the body, suspension by hands and legs from the ceiling, severe beatings with metal or wooden objects, spraying of tear gas in the eyes, shooting in the foot or leg, raping female detainees, and using pliers or electric shocks on the penis, the Report said.

In addition, HRW said that witnesses reported that dozens of deaths as a result of injuries and others were summarily executed in police custody.

The Report noted that the majority of the torture victims interviewed were ordinary criminal suspects whose cases were characterized by an absence of due process of law. Typically, suspects were not informed by the police of the reasons for arrest, received no legal representation, and were subjected to excessive periods of pretrial detention. Once the suspects were brought before a court, judges and magistrates often accepted confessions extracted under torture.

It noted that “Police torture in Nigeria is often socially accepted because it has been common for so long. A culture of impunity has protected the perpetrators. When victims and others have tried to attain accountability they have faced harassment, intimidation and obstruction by the police.”

It declared that the “absence of independent mechanisms to investigate police abuses and make referrals to the prosecutor has created a serious accountability vacuum. This has allowed the perpetrators to evade justice. In recent years, not a single police officer has been successfully prosecuted for committing torture in Nigeria.”