By William Fisher
The Arab Spring has been greeted in Saudi Arabia by "a new wave of repression" that saw authorities arresting and imprisoning peaceful protesters demanding political reforms. Now, the Saudi crackdown may be reinforced by a draft anti-terror law that would effectively criminalize dissent as a "terrorist crime."
In a new 61-page report, "Saudi Arabia: Repression in the Name of Security," Amnesty International (AI) said authorities have "used security concerns to justify the arrest of hundreds of people who have been imprisoned after unfair trials." The draft anti-terror law would further strip away rights from those accused of such offenses, Amnesty said.
"Peaceful protesters and supporters of political reform in the country have been targeted for arrest in an attempt to stamp out the kinds of call for reform that have echoed across the region," said Philip Luther of AI.
"While the arguments used to justify this wide-ranging crackdown may be different, the abusive practices being employed by the Saudi Arabian government are worryingly similar to those which they have long used against people accused of terrorist offenses," he said.
AI said that the government "continues to detain thousands of people, many of them without charge or trial, on terrorism-related grounds. Torture and other ill-treatment in detention remain rife." In April 2011, an Interior Ministry spokesperson said that around 5,000 people connected to the "deviant group," meaning al-Qa'ida, had been questioned and referred for trials, Amnesty said.
Meanwhile, Saudi troops continue to serve in Bahrain on behalf of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), helping the rulers of the tiny oil-rich monarchy to put an end to many months of peaceful demonstrations seeking reform.
In a statement following AI's release of the draft law, the Saudi government said it "absolutely has a responsibility to protect the public from violent attacks, but that has to be done within the boundaries of international law." It said the new draft law is designed "to assist Saudi Security forces in tackling terrorist activity."
But AI charges it would "allow the authorities to prosecute peaceful dissent as a terrorist crime."
The organization says it has obtained copies of the Draft Penal Law for Terrorism Crimes and Financing of Terrorism. It says, "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.
AI says that since February, when sporadic demonstrations began - in defiance of a permanent national ban on protests -- the government carried out a crackdown that included the arrest of hundreds of mostly Shi'a Muslims in the restive eastern province. Since March over 300 people who took part in peaceful protests in al-Qatif, al-Ahsa and Awwamiya have been detained.
Khaled al-Johani, 40, the only man to demonstrate on the March 11 "Day of Rage" in Riyadh, was swiftly arrested. He told journalists he was frustrated by media censorship in Saudi Arabia. Charged with supporting a protest and communicating with foreign media, he is believed to have been held in solitary confinement for two months, Amnesty said.
"Nine months later, he remains in detention and has not been tried. A number of people who have spoken up in support of protests or reform have been arrested. Sheikh Tawfiq Jaber Ibrahim al-'Amr, a Shi'a cleric, was arrested for the second time this year in August for calling for reform at a mosque. He has been charged with "inciting public opinion," AI said.
On November 22, 16 men, including nine prominent reformists, were sentenced to five to 30 years in prison on charges they formed a secret organization, attempted to seize power, financed terrorism as well as incitement against the King and money laundering.
Amnesty says their trial, which began in May, was grossly unfair. "The defendants were blindfolded and handcuffed and their lawyer was not allowed to enter the court for the first three sessions," AI said. "Unless it were radically altered, the proposed draft anti-terror law would make the current situation even worse, as it would entrench and make legal the very worst practices we have documented," according to AI's Luther.
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.
Amnesty is calling 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."
Prof. Chip Pitts of Stanford and Oxford, former Chair of Amnesty International USA, 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."