x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Militant Saudis pay price with thousands held in prison without trial

Thousands of people suffer unfair arrest, detention and even torture in Saudi Arabia after the government responds to a blitz of militant activity.

NEW YORK // Thousands of people have suffered unfair arrest, detention and even torture in Saudi Arabia after the government responded to a blitz of militant activity. Amnesty International claims in a report made public today that most detainees "are held incommunicado for years without trial, and are denied access to lawyers and the courts to challenge the legality of their detention", said Amnesty's regional director, Malcolm Smart.

Saudi officials declined to comment on the report, but have previously praised the efforts of security services in combating armed extremists. The report, Saudi Arabia Assaulting Human Rights in the Name of Counter-Terrorism, describes in detail the alleged plight of a Yemeni man, Abdullah, after his arrest in 2002 and detention in the General Intelligence Prison in Ulaysha, in Riyadh. The 69-page document claims that Abdullah was regularly tortured during his first 56 days behind bars as he was quizzed on his reasons for being in Saudi and having travelled to Afghanistan.

Abdullah, whose identity is protected by the researchers, said he was released without charge and deported to Yemen more than a year later, where he continues to suffer "from pains in the back, legs and mouth as a result of the torture". Saudi Arabia has witnessed repeated attacks recently but violence and discontent focused against the ruling Saud dynasty increased sharply after the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Amnesty's researchers accuse security officials of flouting international rules, arbitrarily arresting thousands of innocents - both foreign and Saudi - and subjecting them to long-term detention, secret trials and torture. Security officials used counter-terrorism as a cover to arrest and detain government critics, including academics and human rights defenders, who have no direct links to extremists, researchers claim.

The report describes a "special criminal court" that began hosting the trials of 991 detainees in March, and accuses the government of failing to provide suspects with legal counsel or information about the evidence against them. The interior ministry reported that 9,000 security suspects were detained between 2003 and July 2007, adding that 3,106 are still held and others have been moved to a "re-education" programme, researchers said.

Amnesty International is not alone in questioning the kingdom's antiterrorism tactics. Martin Scheinin, a UN expert, listed Saudi Arabia among several countries that accept detainees as part of the United States' rendition programme. Mr Scheinin, special rapporteur on promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, criticised the CIA for sending terrorist suspects to these so-called "black sites".

The counterterrorism analyst praised the Amnesty report for being "based on multiple sources and independent fact-finding" and added that it was "worth a close look from my side to continue my earlier engagement with Saudi Arabia". The New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch plans to publish a report on Saudi Arabia's secret trials this summer. The group's regional director, Sarah Leah Whitson, said the absence of a penal code puts too much power in the hands of prosecutors.

"We are very concerned about the fairness of these trials," Ms Whitson said. "Justice requires that people have fair, clear charges against them, that they can contest the charges against them and the evidence against them is made public." Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty urged Saudi authorities to comply with international standards of justice, but said the regional heavyweight uses its influence as a major oil producer to silence criticism from abroad.

"The Saudi Arabian government has used its powerful international clout to get away with it. And the international community has failed to hold the government to account for these gross violations," Mr Smart said. Neither Saudi Arabia's UN mission nor embassy in Washington responded to requests for comment. Calls to Major Gen Mansour al Turki, a spokesman for the ministry of interior in Riyadh, went unanswered yesterday.

Abdulwahab Abdulsalam Attar, an envoy to the UN, has defended the kingdom's efforts in becoming "one of the first countries where the fight against terrorism was successful". Addressing the UN's Geneva-based Human Rights Council in March, Mr Attar said a rehabilitation programme had seen 90 per cent of former extremists "abandon their deviant views", according to UN reports. In addition, security chiefs have rolled out national programmes to combat extremism and set up a website to challenge fatwas issued by terrorist groups. He described the programmes as "very successful".

jreinl@thenational.ae