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Saudi Arabia must reform counter-terror law and free peaceful critics, says UN rights expert


05 May 2017

GENEVA / RIYADH (5 May 2017) – Saudi Arabia must stop using counter-terrorism legislation against people peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, a UN human rights expert says.
The Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, says Saudi laws on terrorism do not comply with international standards. He urged an end to the prosecution of people including human rights defenders, writers and bloggers simply for expressing non-violent views.

“Despite many positive developments, I am concerned about the unacceptably broad definition of terrorism and the use of Saudi Arabia’s 2014 counter-terrorism law and other national security provisions against human rights defenders, writers, bloggers, journalists and other peaceful critics,” said Mr. Emmerson in a statement marking the end of a five-day mission to the country.

“There are continuing problems relating to the prevention of torture of terrorist suspects during investigation, the reported use of confessions obtained under duress, and the use of the death penalty in proceedings which are said to fall short of proper legal process,” emphasized Mr. Emmerson.

“Any definition of terrorism should be confined to acts or threats of violence that are committed for religious, political or ideological motives, and which are aimed at putting members of the public in fear, or at coercing a government or international organization. 

“Contrary to international human rights standards, the current law enables the criminalization of a wide spectrum of acts of peaceful expression, which are viewed by the authorities as endangering national unity or undermining the reputation or position of the state,” said Mr. Emmerson.

The UN expert said he had received numerous reports of prosecutions under the 2014 law but that the Government had been unable to provide access to any of the individuals he had asked to interview.

The Special Rapporteur noted that the country had suffered extremely high numbers of terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda, ISIS and other groups, with more than 3,000 people killed or injured in attacks since 1987.

He commended government efforts to alleviate the suffering of victims and to
counter the spread of violent extremism. He was also impressed by the standard of care for those held in five dedicated prisons for terrorist suspects and convicts.
Mr. Emmerson called for a new independent mechanism to re-examine all cases where people had been jailed for exercising their rights of free speech, thought, conscience, religion or opinion, and of peaceful assembly or association. The Government should commute the sentences or pardon all such prisoners immediately, he added.

“I have handed the Government a list of priority cases for urgent review. In each of these cases it appears the individuals are serving sentences for non-violent speech or writing,” said Mr. Emmerson.

He called for reforms including the guaranteed presence of lawyers and extra training for law enforcement officials.

Allegations made to the Special Rapporteur included arbitrary arrests, violation of the right to be informed of the charge, violation of the right to legal counsel, the absence of independent medical examinations, the practice of incommunicado or secret detention and the admission of evidence obtained by torture. This was a particular problem in cases where the death penalty was imposed, said Mr. Emmerson, as these should have the most stringent standards.

Mr. Emmerson made clear that the allegations were rejected by the President of the Specialized Criminal Court when they met.

The Special Rapporteur also called for greater transparency about civilian casualties in Saudi Arabia’s military operations in Yemen and Syria, reminding the Government of its legal obligation to investigate all civilian deaths.

The Special Rapporteur met representatives of the Government the Commission of Families of Victims, and the Human Rights Commission. He also had meetings with law enforcement officials and had confidential interviews with individuals either suspected or convicted of terrorist crimes.

The Special Rapporteur will present a comprehensive report to the Human Rights Council in March 2018.

Mr. Ben Emmerson (United Kingdom) is the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism. On 1 August 2011, he took up his functions on the mandate that was created in 2005 by the former United Nations Commission on Human, renewed by the UN Human Rights Council for a three-year period in December 2007, in September 2010 and again in March 2013.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
Check the UN 2006 Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy

UN Human Rights, country page: Saudi Arabia

For more information and media requests please contact:

In Riyadh (during the visit): Ms. Laura Bashraheel (+966 11 488 5301 / [email protected])

In Geneva (before and after the visit): Mr. Sharof Azizov (+41 22 917 9748 / +41 79 444 4537 / [email protected]) or write to [email protected]

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / [email protected])  

You can access this media advisory online

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