DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AFP) — Saudi Arabia is using a secretive criminal court to silence critical voices, including clerics and rights activists, and calling it a fight against terrorism, Amnesty International said Thursday.
The kingdom is frequently criticized by human rights advocates who accuse it of violently repressing opponents and activists, especially women and the kingdom’s Shiite minority.
Riyadh’s Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) was established in 2008 to handle terrorism-related cases but has been widely used to try political prisoners.
“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.”
Saudi authorities could not be reached for comment, but the kingdom claims its judicial system is independent.
Amnesty said its report was based on examination of court documents, government statements and national laws in a review of eight trials of 68 Shiite Muslims accused of taking part in protests and 27 people accused of campaigning for human rights.
It said the “grossly unfair” trials before the court saw harsh sentences, including the death penalty, being handed out on the basis of vague charges such as “disobeying the ruler” and “inciting disorder by calling for demonstrations.”
Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has launched ambitious economic and social reforms, allowing some women to drive and for sports and entertainment events to be staged in the kingdom.
However, the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 and the sweeping crackdown on dissent have tarnished the kingdom’s reputation.
Amnesty said that virtually all Saudi Arabian “independent voices,” including human rights advocates, writers and religious clerics are behind bars.
It cited the case of Mohammad al-Otaibi, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison for founding the Union for Human Rights, and faces new charges for seeking political asylum and communicating with international organizations.
The London-based group also detailed the case of Salman al-Awda, a religious cleric arrested in September 2017 who faces the death penalty after calling for reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and its Gulf rival Qatar.
“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,” Morayef said.
© Agence France-Presse