A draft Saudi Arabian anti-terrorism law obtained by Amnesty International would allow the authorities to prosecute peaceful dissent as a terrorist crime.
The organisation has obtained copies of the Draft Penal Law for Terrorism Crimes and Financing of Terrorism, which would also allow extended detention without charge or trial. Questioning the integrity of the King or the Crown Prince would carry a minimum prison sentence of 10 years.
The leak of the draft comes as ongoing peaceful protests across the Middle East and North Africa are being met with government repression.
“This draft law poses a serious threat to freedom of expression in the Kingdom in the name of preventing terrorism,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director.
“If passed it would pave the way for even the smallest acts of peaceful dissent to be branded terrorism and risk massive human rights violations.”
A Saudi Arabian government security committee reviewed the draft law in June but it is not known when or if it might be passed.
The definition of “terrorist crimes” in the draft is so broad that it lends itself to wide interpretation and abuse, and would in effect criminalize legitimate dissent.
Under the draft law, terrorist crimes would include such actions as “endangering…national unity”, “halting the basic law or some of its articles”, or “harming the reputation of the state or its position”.
Violations of the law would carry harsh punishments. The death penalty would be applied to cases of taking up arms against the state or for any “terrorist crimes” that result in death.
A number of other key provisions in the draft law run counter to Saudi Arabia’s international legal obligations, including those under the UN Convention against Torture.
The draft law allows for suspects to be held in incommunicado detention for up to 120 days, or for longer periods – potentially indefinitely – if authorised by a specialised court.
Incommunicado detention facilitates torture or other ill-treatment and prolonged detention of that nature can itself amount to torture.
Detainees in incommunicado detention are also, by definition, denied access to a lawyer during their investigation.
The draft law allows for arbitrary detention: it denies detainees the right to be promptly brought before a judge, and to be released or tried within a reasonable time. It gives the specialised court the power to detain without charge or trial for up to a year, and to extend such detention indefinitely. Detainees are not given a means to challenge the lawfulness of their detention in front of a court.
It also fails to include a clear prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment.
The draft law gives wide-ranging powers to the Minister of the Interior “to take the necessary actions to protect internal security from any terrorist threat.” It does not allow for judicial authorisation or oversight of these actions.
“At a time when people throughout the Middle East and North Africa have been exercising their legitimate right to express dissent and call for change, Saudi Arabian authorities have been seeking to squash this right for its citizens,” said Philip Luther.
“King Abdullah must reconsider this law and ensure that his people’s legitimate right to freedom of expression is not curtailed in the name of fighting terrorism.”