Saudi Arabia: Authorities ramp up repression after G20 hiatus

Saudi Arabian authorities have brazenly intensified the persecution of human rights defenders and dissidents and stepped up executions over the past six months, following a lull in prosecutions of activists and a sharp decline in use of the death penalty during Saudi Arabia’s G20 presidency last year, said Amnesty International in a new briefing published today.

Saudi Arabia’s post-G20 crackdown on expression documents how since Saudi Arabia handed over the G20 presidency, authorities have prosecuted, sentenced or ratified sentences of at least 13 people, following grossly unfair trials before the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC). After an 85% fall in recorded executions in 2020 at least 40 people were put to death between January and July 2021 – more than during the whole of 2020.

“As soon as the G20 spotlight on Saudi Arabia faded the authorities resumed their ruthless pursuit of people who dare to express their opinions freely or criticize the government. In one case, the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced a humanitarian worker to an outrageous 20 years in prison for a simple tweet in which he expressed criticism of economic policies,” said Lynn Maalouf, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

“The brief respite in repression coinciding with Saudi Arabia’s hosting of the G20 summit last November indicates that any illusion of reform was simply a PR drive.”

In February 2021, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman vowed that Saudi Arabia would adopt new laws and reform existing ones to “bolster the principles of justice, enforce transparency” and “protect human rights”. He outlined plans to address four key laws: a Personal Status Law, Civil Transactions Law, Penal Code for Discretionary Sentences and Law of Evidence. The authorities have yet to publish any information about the impact of these promised reforms.

Yet instead of any progress on human rights, the SCC, Saudi Arabia’s notorious counter-terror court, resumed trials, handing down prison terms after grossly unfair trials. In at least three cases, people who had already finished serving lengthy prison sentences for their peaceful activism were either re-arrested, re-sentenced in new cases or had their sentences increased. In June 2021, one young man from the Shi’a minority was executed following the ratification of a death sentence issued three years earlier based on a grossly unfair trial.

Trials before the SCC are intrinsically unfair, with defendants subjected to flawed procedures that violate both Saudi and international law. In many cases defendants are held incommunicado and in solitary confinement for months at a time and denied access to lawyers. The court routinely condemns defendants to lengthy prison terms and even death sentences, following convictions based on “confessions” extracted through torture.

In April 2021 the SCC sentenced humanitarian worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan to 20 years in prison followed by a 20-year travel-ban, for expressing satirical views of government policies on Twitter. The charges were based on vague counter-terrorism provisions, some of which criminalize peaceful expression.

In another example of the SCC at work, human rights activist Israa al-Ghomgham was sentenced to eight years in prison and an eight-year travel ban in February 2021, for charges related to her peaceful activism and participation in anti-government protests.

Mohammad al-Rabiah, who was arrested in May 2018 for supporting a campaign for women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia, was also sentenced in April 2021 by the SCC to six years in prison, followed by a six-year travel ban. The charges against him included: “Seeking to disrupt social cohesion and weaken national unity” and “authoring and publishing a book containing suspicious views.”

Even human rights defenders who were released from detention continue to face judicially imposed travel bans and social media bans. The long-awaited releases of prominent women human rights defenders Loujain al-Hathloul, Nassima al-Sada and Samar Badawi in 2021 were marred by restrictive conditions. These included five-year travel bans, and a risk of re-arrest at any moment as their suspended sentences have not been quashed.

All human rights defenders released after serving prison sentences are forced to sign pledges, which often include bans on public speaking, human rights work or use of social media. These conditions are violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

During 2020, recorded executions in Saudi Arabia dropped by 85%. Immediately after Saudi Arabia’s presidency of the G20 ended, executions resumed with 9 people executed in December 2020 alone. At least 40 people were executed between January and July 2021 – more than the 27 executed in the whole of 2020. In many cases executions took place following convictions in grossly unfair trials, marred by claims of torture during pre-trial detention leading to forced “confessions” which the prosecution systematically failed to investigate.

In June 2021 Mustafa Darwish, a young Saudi Arabian man from the Shi’a minority, was executed following his conviction by the SCC in 2018 on a string of terror-related offences, following a grossly unfair trial. He told the judge in one trial session: “I was threatened, beaten and tortured into giving a confession… I confessed in fear for my life”.

“Saudi Arabia’s plans for limited legislative and human rights reforms mean nothing while executions, unfair trials, and the relentless punishment of human rights defenders, activists and journalists continue. We urge the UN Human Rights Council to establish a monitoring and reporting mechanism on the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia,” said Lynn Maalouf.

“If the Saudi authorities want to show they are serious about respecting human rights, a first step would be to immediately and unconditionally release all human rights defenders detained solely for peacefully exercising their human rights, and ensure their convictions are quashed and all remaining penalties lifted.”

At least 39 individuals are currently behind bars for their activism, human rights work or expression of dissent in Saudi Arabia, according to Amnesty International’s research.