Saudi Arabia: Shia minority and human rights activists targeted by Specialised Criminal Court

Saudi Arabia: Shia minority and human rights activists targeted by Specialised Criminal Court

A new report published by Amnesty International today shows how the Saudi Arabian authorities are using a counter-terrorism court – the Specialised Criminal Court – as a weapon to systematically silence peaceful opposition in the country.

Charges used in proceedings in the court frequently include “disobeying the ruler”, “questioning the integrity of officials and the judicial system”, “inciting disorder by calling for demonstrations” and “forming an unlicensed organisation”.

Established in October 2008 to try those accused of terrorism-related offences, since 2011 the court has instead been used to systematically prosecute people on charges which often equate peaceful political activities with terrorism.

Amnesty’s 53-page report – Muzzling Critical Voices: Politicised trials before Saudi Arabia’s Specialised Criminal Court – documents the cases of 95 individuals, mostly men, who were tried, sentenced or remain on trial before the court between 2011 and 2019. Fifty-two are now serving lengthy prison sentences of up to 30 years.

Since 2011, more than 100 Saudi Arabian Shia Muslims have been brought before the court in relation to peaceful criticism of the government in speeches or on social media, or participation in anti-government protests. They have been tried on vague charges ranging from organising or supporting protests, to alleged involvement in violent attacks and spying for Iran.

Amnesty closely reviewed eight Specialised Criminal Court trials of 68 Shia defendants (most prosecuted for taking part in anti-government protests), and of 27 individuals prosecuted for their peaceful human rights activism. In all 95 cases, Amnesty concluded that the trials were grossly unfair. Some of the defendants were sentenced to death.

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa regional director, said: “The Saudi Arabian government exploits the Specialised Criminal Court to create a false aura of legality around its abuse of the counter-terror law to silence its critics.

“Every stage of the Specialised Criminal Court’s judicial process is tainted with human rights abuses - from the denial of access to a lawyer, to incommunicado detention, to convictions based solely on so-called ‘confessions’ extracted through torture.

“Our research gives the lie to the shiny new reformist image Saudi Arabia is trying to cultivate, exposing how the Government uses a court like the Specialised Criminal Court in the ruthless suppression of those who are courageous enough to voice opposition, defend human rights or call for meaningful reforms.

“If the King and Crown Prince want to show they are serious about reforms, they should as a first step immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience, ensure their convictions and sentences are quashed, and declare an official moratorium on all executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty.”

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