Saudi Arabia’s war on human rights

We should not ignore the human rights abuses committed by Saudi Arabia’s justice system in the name of security

Two weeks ago today the Saudi Arabian authorities announced that 331 defendants had been found guilty of terrorism offences in 179 separate cases. You would have thought that such a sequence of trials and convictions would be major news. It isn’t. Aside from a limited burst of publicity following the Saudi Justice Ministry’s announcement, the whole affair is shrouded in deepest secrecy.

Who are those that make up this vast number of people? What are their offences? Are they all Saudis, or are their foreigners amongst them? Do our own security forces know anything about the cases?

One person who might know something is Prince Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s veteran interior minister. He has been the country’s politician in charge of national security for a stunning 34 years (making our home secretaries seem like political mayflies). He’s the man who announced last October that 991 people had been charged with suspected involvement in terrorism. Back in 2007, he said that Saudi Arabia had detained more than 9,000 security suspects since 2001. Of these, 3,106 were still in custody at that time.

Beyond the sporadic announcement of mind-boggling numbers and the occasional well-constructed journalistic tour of a “re-education” facility, the Saudi system is buried in secrecy. What we do know is that it is characterised by appalling human rights violations: arbitrary arrest, torture, unfair trials, flogging and execution. At Amnesty International, we also believe the situation is getting worse.

In a report just published, we highlight some of the human rights violations perpetrated by Saudi Arabia’s authorities in the name of security and fighting terrorism. Some of the detail is shocking, not least for the residents of al-Jouf who awoke one morning in 2005 to see on public display the bodies of three men who had been executed and then crucified. Majed Nasser al-Shummari and Mislat al-Mutayri were arrested in 2002-3 and respectively sentenced to three years and two years plus flogging. They’re still in jail today. Non-violent critics of the government have been caught in the net, along with lawyers and human rights defenders.

But should our own government care? Every now and then the FCO does express broad concern about human rights in Saudi Arabia. It’s difficult to feel that this is an agenda item at top-level discussions and the Saudi government has proven adept at using its geopolitical position and oil wealth to deflect criticism. But there are a number of reasons why it’s important to consider a more outspoken approach.

First, Britons can find themselves caught up this. For example, a group of British men including William Sampson endured sleep deprivation and torture before being hauled in front of TV cameras in 2001 to “confess” their crimes. This followed a series of bomb attacks and shootings that the authorities unconvincingly attributed to turf wars between western bootleggers.

Second, in the current circumstances, any secret information shared with the UK by Saudi general intelligence or other agencies is potentially tainted as torture evidence. The situation also makes it virtually impossible to safely deport any critic of Saudi Arabia back to the country, given the fundamental concerns about torture and lack of due process. Third, the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia is just plain wrong – and our government should acknowledge this in plain terms.

There’s also a new reason for the FCO to look again at things in the Saudi kingdom. If Britain didn’t open its eyes to Saudi injustice during the fake bootlegging affair, it ought to now. It is continuing to negotiate with the US government over the release from Guantánamo Bay of a Saudi national called Shaker Aamer. He’s a long-standing UK resident, with a young British family in south London. If the government fails to secure his release back to these shores, he may find himself swallowed up in Saudi Arabia’s secretive and unaccountable justice system.

Saudi Arabia has genuine security issues to confront. Scores of its own civilians have been killed in bombings and shootings by armed groups. Fifteen of the 9/11 attackers were from the kingdom. Responding to these threats is necessary, but by failing to respond within a framework of human rights, the Saudi Arabian detention system is another side of the same degraded counter-terrorism coin as the Guantánamo detention facility in which Shaker Aamer continues to reside.

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