In Depth

Inside Saudi Arabia’s secret courts

Amnesty International accuses Riyadh of silencing political opponents

Saudi Arabia is using secret courts set up under the pretence of fighting terrorism to silence political dissidents, Amnesty International has alleged.

The human rights organisation has released a damning report accusing the Saudi government of using the so-called “Specialised Criminal Court” (SCC), designed to investigate terror offences, as a “weapon of repression” to jail critics, activists, journalists, clerics and minority Muslim Shia, says The New York Times.

Amnesty alleges that a number of people jailed through the SCC have been sentenced to death and executed.

“The Saudi Arabian government exploits the SCC to create a false aura of legality around its abuse of the counter-terror law to silence its critics,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa regional director. “Every stage of the SCC’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.”

What does the report say?

The ruling government of Saudi Arabia – effectively a totalitarian absolute monarchy – has come under considerable pressure in recent years for violently repressing opponents and activists.

This intensified after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was accused of sanctioning the killing of Washington Post columnist and frequent Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October 2018.

And this week, after a five-year investigation, human rights watchdog Amnesty International published a report alleging that the country’s Specialised Criminal Court, set up in 2008, has been used as a weapon to “silence criticism despite the kingdom’s recent attempts to cultivate a reformist image”, The Guardian says.

The SCC was initially set up as a counter-terrorism measure, but since 2011 “overly broad counter-terror and anti-cybercrime laws” have been used by the court to “hand down prison sentences of up to 30 years and in some cases the death penalty”, the paper adds.

Amnesty suggests that these sentences have been handed down to human rights defenders, writers, economists, journalists, religious clerics, reformists and political activists, particularly from the country’s Shia minority.

The organisation alleges that common charges in proceedings include “disobeying the ruler” of the kingdom, “questioning the integrity of officials”, “seeking to disrupt security and inciting disorder by calling for demonstrations” and “disseminating false information to foreign groups”, says the New York Times.

“Our research gives lie to the shiny new reformist image Saudi Arabia is trying to cultivate," said Morayef, adding that the government is attempting to “create a false aura of legality around its abuse of the counter-terror law to silence its critics”.

What is the SCC?

The Associated Press reports that when it was initially established, the SCC “only tried al-Qaida suspects”, but a shift came in mid-2011, coinciding with the start of the Arab Spring, when anti-government protests rocked the Arab world.

In its report this week, Amnesty found that of the 95 people tried by the SCC between 2011 and 2019, 68 were Shia Muslims who were mostly prosecuted for their participation in anti-government protests, while 27 people were prosecuted for their political activism or expression.

A total of 52 are now serving lengthy prison sentences of between five and 30 years, with many at “imminent risk of execution”. Seventeen have been executed so far, the New York Times reports, adding that judges at the court “do not rigorously examine and question prosecutors’ assertions” and “routinely accept defendants’ confessions as evidence of guilt, even in instances where defendants have told the court they were extracted under torture”.

“In all cases… the trials were grossly unfair,” Amnesty said.

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What has the reaction been?

Al Jazeera reports that Saudi Arabia has implemented a “series of social and economic reforms” championed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in recent years, including “giving women the right to drive and opening up the conservative kingdom for entertainment and tourism”.

However, Amnesty insists that its findings – along with those of other investigations – undermine these reforms.

Morayef says that Amnesty is “exposing how the [Saudi] government uses a court like the SCC in the ruthless suppression of those who are courageous enough to voice opposition, defend human rights or call for meaningful reforms”.

Amnesty has subsequently urged Riyadh to “release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally” and to end violations at SCC trials.

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