DUBAI: Amnesty International accused Saudi Arabia on Thursday of using a secretive court established to try terrorism cases as “a weapon of repression” to imprison peaceful critics, activists, journalists, clerics and Shias, including some who were sentenced to death and executed.
The London-based rights organisation examined court documents and spoke to activists and lawyers for its 53-page report, which sheds light on the secretive proceedings of the Specialised Criminal Court.
The report found that trials before the court were a mockery of justice and its judges willing accomplices” in suppressing those who dare speak up.
Established in 2008 to try terror-related crimes, the court started trying critics of the government in 2011 under broadly worded counter-terrorism laws that criminalise acts such as insulting King Salman and the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
“Our research gives lie to the shiny new reformist image Saudi Arabia is trying to cultivate,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty’s Mideast and North Africa regional director. She said the government has used the special court “to create a false aura of legality around its abuse of the counter-terror law to silence its critics”.
Amnesty also said that the government’s “rhetoric about reforms under the crown prince” stands in stark contrast to reality in the kingdom where women’s rights activists and dozens of perceived critics of the young prince remain imprisoned or face trial on vague charges related to national security. Some, like reformist cleric Salman al-Awda, face the death penalty in trials before the court.
When it was initially established, the special court only tried Al Qaeda suspects, but the shift came in mid-2011 the same year that Arab Spring protests were roiling the region and threatening to upend autocratic rule when 16 reformists from Jeddah were referred to the court.
Amnesty documented the cases of 95 people tried before the special court between 2011 and 2019. Of those, 68 are Shias who were mostly prosecuted for their participation in anti-government protests, while 27 people were prosecuted for their political activism or expression.
“In all cases … the trials were grossly unfair,” Amnesty said.
The watchdog reached out to multiple official Saudi agencies during its investigation. The government’s Human Rights Commission was the only one to respond, saying the special court follows the same rules and procedures of other criminal courts and that all hearings before it were public, with defendants, their lawyers and families present.
Like other human rights groups, Amnesty was not permitted to conduct research from inside Saudi Arabia.