By William Fisher
A new draft law that Saudi Arabia says is designed “to assist Saudi Security forces in tackling terrorist activity” would in reality allow the authorities to prosecute peaceful dissent as a terrorist crime, according to Amnesty International.
The organization says it has obtained copies of the Draft Penal Law for Terrorism Crimes and Financing of Terrorism.
“This draft law poses a serious threat to freedom of expression in the Kingdom in the name of preventing terrorism,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty
International’s Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director.
“If passed it would pave the way for even the smallest acts of peaceful dissent to be branded terrorism and risk massive human rights violations.”
A Saudi Arabian government security committee reviewed the draft law in June but it is not known when or if it might be passed.
The definition of “terrorist crimes” in the draft is so broad that it lends
itself to wide interpretation and abuse, and would in effect criminalize
legitimate dissent. It would allow extended detention without charge or trial. Questioning the integrity of the King or the Crown Prince would carry a minimum prison sentence of 10 years.
The draft law allows for suspects to be held in incommunicado detention for up to 120 days, or for longer periods – potentially indefinitely – if authorized by a specialized court.
Under the draft law, terrorist crimes would include such actions as
“endangering…national unity”, “halting the basic law or some of its articles”, or “harming the reputation of the state or its position”.
Violations of the law would carry harsh punishments. The death penalty would be applied to cases of taking up arms against the state or for any “terrorist crimes” that result in death.
Amnesty charges that a number of other key provisions in the draft law run counter to Saudi Arabia’s international legal obligations, including those under the UN Convention against Torture.
The leak of the draft comes as ongoing peaceful protests across the Middle East and North Africa are being met with government repression.
Amnesty said, “Incommunicado detention facilitates torture or other ill-treatment and prolonged detention of that nature can itself amount to torture. Detainees in incommunicado detention are also, by definition, denied access to a lawyer during their investigation.”
It added, “The draft law allows for arbitrary detention: it denies detainees the right to be promptly brought before a judge, and to be released or tried within a reasonable time. It gives the specialized court the power to detain without charge or trial for up to a year, and to extend such detention indefinitely. Detainees are not given a means to challenge the lawfulness of their detention in front of a court.”
It also fails to include a clear prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment.
The draft law gives wide-ranging powers to the Minister of the Interior “to take the necessary actions to protect internal security from any terrorist threat.”
It does not allow for judicial authorization or oversight of these actions.
“At a time when people throughout the Middle East and North Africa have been exercising their legitimate right to express dissent and call for change, Saudi Arabian authorities have been seeking to squash this right for its citizens,” said Philip Luther.
Amnesty called on King Abdullah to “reconsider this law and ensure that his people’s legitimate right to freedom of expression is not curtailed in the name of fighting terrorism.”
The Saudi Embassy in London issued a statement denying all of Amnesty’s allegations. It said, “The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia would like to point out that Amnesty’s concerns about this law are baseless, mere supposition on their part, and completely without foundation.”
But the Embassy went on to cite terrorist activity as a justification for the new measure. It said: “The Kingdom would also like to point out that it is determined to continue to tackle the threat of terrorism in Saudi Arabia. Since 1995, the Kingdom has been struggling with domestic terrorism, only recently eradicating Al-Qaeda cells that took root in the country. Before that time, a multitude of terrorist acts occurred, killing scores of people and sowing fear. Today, due to the efforts of the Saudi Security Services, those cells have largely been eradicated. However, regional unrest provides a breeding ground for new threats. The continued growth of Al-Qaeda presents us with a serious challenge, and policies that prevent this group from establishing an affiliated network in the Kingdom are necessary.”
By “regional unrest” the Embassy was apparently referring to what is customarily called “The Arab Spring” – the proliferation of grassroots anti-government protest movements that has so far toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt.
The Saudis have taken steps to attempt to preempt the outbreak of unrest or violence among its people. It gave substantial cash gifts to each Saudi family -- $3,000 is the figure mooted – and initiated a new program for skills development and job re-training.
Whether these measures, combined with the powers of a police state, will be sufficient to blunt the anti-government sentiment remains to be seen.
Prof. Chip Pitts of Stanford and Oxford, former Chair of Amnesty International USA, and board member and former President of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, commented on the proposed new law.
“Having just renewed the USA Patriot Act, the United States has sadly continued to set the stage for and model such counterproductive, harsh, and illegal approaches, and undermined its ability to credibly and effectively question them.” He said, adding:
“The myopic and reactionary approach taken in the new Saudi draft law, which would violate the country’s obligations under international human rights law, shows that the Kingdom is battening down the hatches and preparing for a long period of continued feudal rule that contradicts the very premises of expanding human rights that have swept the world in recent centuries.”
“Neglecting the lessons of the Arab Spring – that repression ultimately breeds instability and violence – the Saudi regime apparently prefers to look backwards to an error of medieval justice and absolute monarchical power which brooks no dissent. Such backwardness condemns the Saudi regime to greater isolation over time, and the Saudi people and businesses to constricted options for economic and social development, unless wiser heads prevail and move toward more progressive instead of regressive laws,” he said.
Prof. Lawrence Davidson, who teaches history at West Chester University, sees the proposed new law in its longer-term context. He said, “Laws like this essentially blur the lines between the criminal and the authorities. It makes it much harder to tell who is who. Presently, there are two aspects to Saudi power: Force of questionable legitimacy and the ability to buy the loyalty of a portion of their population. In a couple of generations the latter may well go away and then former will probably prove insufficient. This law will not lessen the probability that last of the Saudi royal line dying in exile.”
In addition to shoring up its repressive agenda at home, Saudi Arabia is actively assisting the King of Bahrain to put down the anti-government demonstrations that have been taking place there for the past few months.
Saudi troops were dispatched to neighboring Bahrain, along with soldiers from the United Arab Emirates, both under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council, to help the minority Sunni Royal Family to quell the demands of the majority Shia population it rules.
Reliable reports from Bahrain indicate that the government has been waging a “legal” war against protesters, with massive middle-of-the-night arrests, trials of doctors and teachers before military courts, often with defendants’ lawyers, and with credible charges of torture and abuse in detention.
The tiny island nation – smallest in the Gulf – is of strategic importance to the US, as it houses the American Fifth Fleet, The US has been deeply involved in attempting to perpetuate a “national dialogue” between opposing parties, but it is unclear whether a majority of the pro-democracy demonstrators will participate.