May 8, 2017

Post-visit, UN Human Rights Chief Asks Saudi Arabia to Reform


UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré
Ben Emmerson:UN Photo:Jean-Marc Ferré

Ben Emmerson, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism

Geneva/Riyadh – Coinciding with the announcement of US President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia later this month (May), the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, said that 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 Emmerson in a statement marking the end of a five-day mission to the country.

No access

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.

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 Emmerson.

Rampant Torture

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

Commending where due

Highlighting that the country had suffered an extremely high numbers of terrorist attacks, Emmerson commended government efforts to alleviate the suffering of victims and to counter the spread of violent extremism. The Special Rapporteur noted that the country suffered those terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda, ISIS and other groups, with more than 3,000 people killed or injured in attacks since 1987. He was also impressed by the standard of care for those held in five dedicated prisons for terrorist suspects and convicts.

Doubts over Yemen, Syria operations

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.

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 Emmerson, as these should have the most stringent standards.

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

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 in addition to confidential interviews with individuals either suspected or convicted of terrorist crimes.

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