The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a monarchy ruled by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who is both head of state and head of government. The 1992 Basic Law sets out the system of governance, rights of citizens, and powers and duties of the government, and it provides that the Quran and Sunna (the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) serve as the country’s constitution. It specifies that the rulers of the country shall be male descendants of the founder, King Abdulaziz (Ibn Saud). In 2015 the country held its most recent municipal elections on a nonparty basis for two-thirds of the 3,159 seats in the 284 municipal councils around the country. Independent polling station observers did not identify significant irregularities with the elections.
The State Security Presidency, National Guard, and Ministries of Defense and Interior, all of which report to the king, are responsible for law enforcement and maintenance of order. The State Security Presidency includes the General Directorate of Investigation (Mabahith), Special Security Forces, and Special Emergency Forces; police are under the Ministry of Interior. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.
Saudi Arabia continued air operations in Yemen throughout the year as leader of a coalition formed to counter the 2014 Houthi takeover of Yemeni government institutions and facilities. Houthi militants conducted missile, rocket, drone, and artillery attacks aimed at Saudi territory on an almost weekly basis. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen reportedly resulted in civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure on multiple occasions. In June the UN secretary-general noted a “sustained, significant decrease in killing and maiming due to air strikes” and delisted the Saudi-led coalition from the list of parties responsible for grave violations against children in armed conflict. The Joint Incident Assessment Team, an independent investigative body, reviewed allegations of civilian casualties against the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and referred incidents for potential action. (See the Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Yemen).
During the year a royal decree abolished discretionary (ta’zir) death penalty sentences for crimes committed by minors, although the death penalty can still be applied to minors in instances specified by Islamic law (including for murder when the victim’s family seeks the death penalty). The decree also capped prison sentences for minors at 10 years. The Supreme Court instructed courts to end flogging as a discretionary sentence and replace it with prison sentences or fines, which could eliminate flogging in most cases. Authorities continued to expand women’s rights, including a court ruling that a woman living independently did not constitute a criminal act and the Ministry of Education’s decision to drop the requirement that women studying abroad on a government scholarship be accompanied by a male guardian.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful killings; executions for nonviolent offenses; forced disappearances; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of prisoners and detainees by government agents; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including threats of violence or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, and engaging in harassment and intimidation against Saudi dissidents living abroad; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions of religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement; inability of citizens to choose their government peacefully through free and fair elections; violence and discrimination against women, although new women’s rights initiatives were implemented; trafficking in persons; criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual activity; and restrictions on workers’ freedom of association, including prohibition of trade unions and collective bargaining.
In several cases the government did not punish officials accused of committing human rights abuses, contributing to an environment of impunity. In September the Public Prosecutor’s Office announced a final verdict in the murder trial of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, killed at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2018. All five defendants previously sentenced to death for their roles had their sentences commuted to a maximum of 20 years in prison, following a pardon from the Khashoggi family. Three others had their prison sentences upheld. The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions called the verdicts a “parody of justice” and stated high-level officials “who organized and embraced the execution of Jamal Khashoggi have walked free from the start.”
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. The Public Prosecutor’s Office (PPO), which reports to the King, is responsible for investigating whether security force actions were justifiable and pursuing prosecutions.
On April 13, media reported that security forces shot and killed tribal activist Abdulrahim al-Huwaiti in the northwestern town of al-Khuraybah, Tabuk region. Al-Huwaiti reportedly refused to leave his home, which was slated for demolition in preparation for the construction of a new high-tech city to attract foreign investors. He was killed following a clash with authorities at his home. Hours before his death, al-Huwaiti posted YouTube videos in which he criticized the project and claimed his neighbors had been forcibly removed after facing pressure from the government and rejecting financial compensation to move.
An August 13 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Saudi border guards of killing several dozen Ethiopian migrants in April as they crossed over the border from Yemen illegally, fleeing Houthi forces who were forcibly expelling migrant workers.
Under the country’s interpretation and practice of sharia (Islamic law), capital punishment may be imposed for a range of nonviolent offenses, including apostasy, sorcery, and adultery, although in practice death sentences for such offenses were rare and usually reduced on appeal. As of December 31, five of the 25 executions during the year were for crimes not considered “most serious” (drug related). The total number of executions during the year was considerably less than the 185 executions carried out in 2019.
Since the country lacks a comprehensive written penal code listing criminal offenses and the associated penalties for them (see section 1.e.), punishment–including the imposition of capital punishment–is subject to considerable judicial discretion.
On September 7, the Riyadh Criminal Court issued a final verdict in the murder trial of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, killed in Istanbul in 2018. All five government agents who were previously sentenced to death for their roles had their sentences commuted to a maximum of 20 years in prison. Three other defendants had their sentences of seven to 10 years’ imprisonment upheld. The court’s ruling came after Khashoggi’s sons announced in May they would exercise their right to pardon the five individuals who had been sentenced to death. On September 7, the UN special rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard, called the final verdict a “parody of justice” and asserted that the high-level officials “who organized and embraced the execution of Jamal Khashoggi have walked free from the start.”
In April a royal decree abolished discretionary (ta’zir) death penalty sentences for those who committed crimes as minors. (The 2018 Juvenile Law sets the legal age of adulthood at 18 based on the Hijri calendar.) Minor offenders, however, who are convicted in qisas, a category of crimes that includes various types of murder, or hudud, crimes that carry specific penalties under the country’s interpretation of Islamic law, could still face the death penalty, according to HRW. The royal decree also capped prison sentences for minors at 10 years.
On April 8, government authorities in al-Bahah region carried out a qisas death sentence against Abdulmohsen al-Ghamdi, who had been charged with intentional homicide when he was a child, according to the European-Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR). Al-Ghamdi was reportedly arrested in 2012, at the age of 15, after he had shot and killed a classmate at a high school.
On August 26, the governmental Human Rights Commission (HRC) announced the Public Prosecutor’s Office (PPO) ordered a review of the death sentences of three Shia activists, Abdullah al-Zaher, Dawood al-Marhoon, and Ali al-Nimr, who were minors at the time of arrest. The statement indicated that the review order was an implementation of the April royal decree and applied retroactively.
In November a judge in the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) ruled to overturn al-Marhoon and al-Zaher’s death sentences, and resentenced them to 10 years. Al-Zaher and al-Marhoon were 16 and 17, respectively, at the time of their arrests in 2012. Both were charged in connection with their involvement in antigovernment protests.
As of December, al-Nimr’s case remained under review. Al-Nimr was arrested in 2012 and sentenced to death in 2014 for crimes allegedly committed when he was 17. He was charged with protesting, aiding and abetting fugitives, attacking security vehicles, and various violent crimes. Human rights organizations reported due process concerns relating to minimum fair-trial standards for his case. Al-Nimr is the nephew of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, executed in 2016.
There was also no update by year’s end as to whether the April royal decree would be applied retroactively in the case of the death sentence against Mustafa al-Darwish for his involvement as a minor in antigovernment protests in 2012. On February 26, Nashet Qatifi, a Shia activist group, claimed the Supreme Court had upheld al-Darwish’s death penalty.
In November the rights group Reprieve expressed concern for 10 minors who remained on death row, including Muhammad al-Faraj. The group reported that prosecutors continued to seek the death penalty in a trial against al-Faraj, who was arrested in 2017 for protest-related crimes when he was 15.
In February a court issued a final verdict reducing Murtaja Qureiris’ sentence from a 12-year prison term handed to him in June 2019 to eight years, followed by a travel ban for a similar period, according to the human rights organization al-Qst (ALQST). According to rights groups including Amnesty International, Qureiris was detained in 2014 for a series of offenses committed when he was between 10 and 13 years old, and the public prosecution had sought the death penalty in his case.
There were terrorist attacks in the country during the year. Iranian-backed Houthis continued to target Saudi civilians and infrastructure with missiles and unmanned aircraft systems launched from Yemen. There were no civilian casualties during the year.
The United Nations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), media, and humanitarian and other international organizations reported what they characterized as disproportionate use of force by all parties to the conflict in Yemen, including the Saudi-led coalition, Houthi militants, and other combatants. The Group of Experts concluded that four airstrikes conducted by the Saudi-led coalition (SLC) between June 2019 and June 2020 were undertaken without proper regard to the principles of distinction, proportionality, and precaution to protect civilians and civilian objects. A UN report released in June documented 395 instances of killing and 1,052 instances of maiming of children in Yemen between January and December 2019, of which 222 casualties were attributed to the SLC. The UN secretary-general noted this was a “sustained significant decrease in killing and maiming due to air strikes” and delisted the SLC from the list of parties responsible for grave violations against children in armed conflict. (See the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Yemen.)
There were reports of disappearances carried out by or on behalf of government authorities.
In early March authorities reportedly detained four senior princes: Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, King Salman’s full brother; his son, Prince Nayef bin Ahmed, a former head of army intelligence; Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, former crown prince and interior minister; and his younger brother, Prince Nawaf bin Nayef. The detentions were not announced by the government, but Reuters reported that the princes were accused of “conducting contacts with foreign powers to carry out a coup d’etat.” The Wall Street Journal reported that at the same time, security forces detained dozens of Interior Ministry officials, senior army officers, and others suspected of supporting the alleged coup attempt. In August lawyers representing Prince Mohammed bin Nayef said they were increasingly concerned about his well-being, alleging that his whereabouts remained unknown five months after he was detained and stating that he had not been allowed visits by his personal doctor. Prince Nawaf’s lawyers stated he was released in August, but there were no updates on the other three as of year’s end.
On March 16, authorities arrested Omar al-Jabri, 21, and Sarah al-Jabri, 20, in Riyadh and held them in incommunicado detention, according to HRW. They are the children of former intelligence official Saad al-Jabri, who has lived in exile in Canada since 2017. Prisoners of Conscience reported that the first trial hearing against Omar and Sarah occurred on September 10. They remained in detention at year’s end.
On March 27, authorities reportedly detained Prince Faisal bin Abdullah Al Saud, son of the late king Abdullah and former head of the Saudi Red Crescent Society, and have since held him incommunicado and refused to reveal his whereabouts, according to HRW. The authorities previously detained Prince Faisal during a November 2017 anticorruption campaign.
On March 5, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions contacted the Foreign Ministry to urge the release of Princess Basmah bint Saud, 56, a daughter of the late king Saud. On April 15, a verified Twitter account owned by Princess Basmah issued a series of tweets stating that she and her daughter Suhoud al-Sharif were being held without charge in al-Ha’ir Prison in Riyadh and that her health was deteriorating, according to HRW. The tweets apparently disappeared after several hours. On May 5, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that family members had received no further information about her well-being or status. On April 6, the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council reported it sent a communication to the government alleging that authorities prevented Princess Basmah and her daughter from traveling to seek medical attention for her daughter’s health condition, that they were subsequently detained and held incommunicado for a period of approximately one month, and that they were being held at the al-Ha’ir Prison in Riyadh without charge, according to the ESOHR.
On May 17, State Security Presidency (SSP) officers arrested internet activist Amani al-Zain in Jeddah; her whereabouts remained unknown, according to the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) and Prisoners of Conscience. They added that al-Zain was arrested after she apparently referred to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as “Abu Munshar,” meaning “father of the saw,” while on a live video chat with Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim in October 2019.
On June 28, the Geneva-based Organization for Rights and Liberties (SAM) called on the government to disclose the fate of five Yemenis it said were being held in its prisons. On June 10, Prisoners of Conscience confirmed Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Zubayri, a member of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform or al-Islah Party had been in Saudi detention since May 20 for participating in an online meeting hosted by Yemeni students in Turkey.
In February disappeared humanitarian aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan was permitted to call his family briefly, at which time he stated he was being held in al-Ha’ir Prison. His family has not heard from him since.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits torture and makes officers, who are responsible for criminal investigations, liable for any abuse of authority. Sharia, as interpreted in the country, prohibits judges from accepting confessions obtained under duress. Statutory law provides that public investigators shall not subject accused persons to coercive measures to influence their testimony.
Human rights organizations, the United Nations, and independent third parties noted numerous reports of torture and mistreatment of detainees by law enforcement officers. ALQST alleged that authorities continued to use torture in prisons and interrogation rooms. Amnesty International assessed in a February statement that one of the most striking failings of the SCC in trials was “its unquestioning reliance on torture-tainted ‘confessions.’” It alleged at least 20 Shia men tried by the SCC have been sentenced to death on the basis of confessions obtained by torture since 2016, with 17 of them already executed. Former detainees in facilities run by the Mabahith alleged that abuse included beatings, sleep deprivation, and long periods of solitary confinement for nonviolent detainees.
On May 11, seven UN special rapporteurs sent a letter to the government regarding Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed Hassan al-Habib and Shia teenager Murtaja Qureiris (see section 1.a.), expressing concern at the use of torture and mistreatment to extract confessions and possible incriminating evidence.
On July 11, the ESOHR stated the government continued to hold 49 women activists in detention, including several human rights advocates, and claimed they were subjected to torture and mistreatment.
On August 13, SAM alleged in Middle East Monitor that Jizan Prison authorities subjected hundreds of Yemeni detainees to torture and mistreatment. It said former Yemeni detainees claimed that prison officials subjected them to severe torture including electrocutions, crucifixions, being held in solitary confinement for prolonged periods, denial of health care, and being denied outside contacts, including with lawyers and family. According to the group, at least one detainee died.
Officials from the Ministry of Interior, the PPO, and the HRC, which is responsible for coordinating with other government entities to investigate and respond to alleged human rights violations (see section 5), claimed that rules prohibiting torture prevented such practices from occurring in the penal system. The Ministry of Interior stated it installed surveillance cameras to record interrogations of suspects in some criminal investigation offices, police stations, and prisons where such interrogations allegedly occurred.
Courts continued to sentence individuals to corporal punishment, but in April the Supreme Court instructed all courts to end flogging as a discretionary (ta’zir) criminal sentence and replace it with prison sentences, fines, or a mixture of both. Flogging still could be included in sentences for three hudud crimes: drunkenness, sexual conduct between unmarried persons, and false accusations of adultery. The Supreme Court stated the reform was intended to “bring the Kingdom in line with international human rights norms against corporal punishment.”
Impunity was a problem in the security forces. The ongoing crackdown on corruption, including the investigation of security services personnel, and the announced reform of the legal code indicate efforts to address impunity.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions varied, and some did not meet international standards; reported problems included overcrowding and inadequate conditions.
Physical Conditions: Juveniles constituted less than 1 percent of detainees and were held in separate facilities from adults, according to available information.
Authorities held pretrial detainees together with convicted prisoners. They separated persons suspected or convicted of terrorism offenses from the general population but held them in similar facilities. Activists alleged that authorities sometimes detained individuals in the same cells as individuals with mental disabilities as a form of punishment and indicated that authorities mistreated persons with disabilities.
Authorities differentiated between violent and nonviolent prisoners, sometimes pardoning nonviolent prisoners to reduce the prison population. Shia inmates were in some cases held in separate wings of prisons and reportedly faced worse conditions than Sunnis.
Certain prisoners convicted on terrorism-related charges were required to participate in government-sponsored rehabilitation programs before consideration of their release.
In a June 7 report, the Guardian newspaper quoted rights groups as saying that al-Ha’ir Prison in Riyadh has long been associated with physical abuse. An ALQST representative alleged the general criminal area of al-Ha’ir was overcrowded and had poor sanitation and that denial of medical treatment and temporary transfer of political prisoners into the overcrowded general criminal prison were used as punishment.
On March 26, the HRC announced that authorities released 250 foreign detainees held on nonviolent immigration and residency offenses as part of efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19.
On April 24, human rights defender Abdullah al-Hamid, 69, died in detention. Prisoners of Conscience, which tracks human rights-related cases in the country, asserted his death was due to “intentional health neglect” by prison authorities. According to ALQST and HRW, al-Hamid’s health deteriorated after authorities delayed a necessary heart operation. ALQST and HRW also reported that authorities took steps to prevent him from discussing his health condition with his family. Al-Hamid, cofounder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (known as ACPRA), was serving an 11-year prison sentence following his conviction in 2013 on charges related to his peaceful political and human rights activism. On June 2, UN experts sent the government a letter expressing deep concern over al-Hamid’s death in detention.
Administration: There were multiple legal authorities for prisons and detention centers. The General Directorate of Prisons administered approximately 91 detention centers, prisons, and jails, while the Mabahith administered approximately 20 regional prisons and detention centers for security prisoners. The law of criminal procedure gives the PPO the authority to conduct official visits of prisons and detention facilities “within their jurisdictional areas to ensure that no person is unlawfully imprisoned or detained.”
No ombudsmen were available to register or investigate complaints made by prisoners, although prisoners could and did submit complaints to the HRC, which has offices in a number of prisons, and the quasi-governmental National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) for follow up. The law of criminal procedure provides that “any prisoner or detainee shall have the right to submit, at any time, a written or verbal complaint to the prison or detention center officer and request that he communicate it to a member of the [former] Bureau of Investigations and Public Prosecution [renamed the PPO].” Inmates, however, required approval from prison authorities to submit complaints to an HRC office. Under the law there is no right to submit complaints directly to judicial authorities. There was no information available on whether prisoners were able to submit complaints to prison or prosecutorial authorities without censorship or whether authorities responded or acted upon complaints.
On January 13, the PPO launched Ma’akom, an electronic service that allows citizens and residents to submit complaints in case of any violation of the rights of detainees. Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser al-Muqbel, the PPO’s assistant undersecretary for prison supervision and enforcement of sentences, declared, “The PPO will follow up on the case, go to where the detainee is held, conduct the necessary investigations, order the detainee’s release if there are irregularities in his arrest, and take necessary measures against perpetrators of the illegal arrest.” There were no updates on implementation of the system by year’s end.
Record keeping on prisoners was inadequate; there were reports authorities held prisoners after they had completed their sentences.
A Ministry of Interior-run website (Nafetha) provided detainees and their relatives access to a database containing information about the legal status of the detainee, including any scheduled trial dates. Activists said the website did not provide information about all detainees.
Authorities generally permitted relatives and friends to visit prisoners twice a week, although certain prisons limited visitation to once or twice a month. Prisoners were typically granted at least one telephone call per week. There were reports that prison, security, or law enforcement officials denied this privilege in some instances, often during investigations. The families of detainees could access the Nafetha website for applications for prison visits, temporary leave from prison (generally approved around post-Ramadan Eid holidays), and release on bail (for pretrial detainees). Some family members of detained persons under investigation said family visits were typically not allowed, while others said allowed visits or calls were extremely brief (less than five minutes). Authorities at times reportedly denied some detainees weekly telephone calls for several months. Some family members of prisoners complained authorities canceled scheduled visits with relatives without reason. Since March human rights groups reported that in-person visitation in prisons was suspended due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Authorities generally permitted Muslim detainees and prisoners to perform religious observances such as prayers.
Independent Monitoring: Independent institutions were not permitted to conduct regular, unannounced visits to places of detention, according to the UN Committee against Torture. During the year the government permitted some foreign diplomats restricted access to some prison facilities in nonconsular cases. In a limited number of cases, foreign diplomats were granted consular visits to individuals in detention, but the visits took place in a separate visitors’ center where conditions may differ from those in the detention facilities holding the prisoners.
The government permitted the HRC and quasi-governmental NSHR to monitor prison conditions. The organizations stated they visited prisons throughout the country and reported on prison conditions. On July 9, local media reported the HRC conducted 2,094 prison visits during the fiscal year 2019-20, including visits to public prisons, security prisons, and various detention centers, as well as “social observation centers” and girls’ welfare institutions.
Improvements: On April 7, King Salman ordered the temporary suspension of execution of final verdicts and judicial orders related to the imprisonment of debtors involved in private rights-related cases in an effort to reduce the prison population and limit the spread of COVID-19. He also ordered the immediate, temporary release of prisoners already serving time for debt-related convictions.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law provides that no entity may restrict a person’s actions or imprison a person, except under the provisions of the law. The law of criminal procedure provides that authorities may not detain a person for more than 24 hours, but the Ministry of Interior and the SSP, to which the majority of forces with arrest powers reported, maintained broad authority to arrest and detain persons indefinitely without judicial oversight, notification of charges, or effective access to legal counsel or family.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
On May 11, the Council of Ministers established a new system for the PPO and amended Article 112 of the law of criminal procedure, giving the PPO “complete and independent powers” to identify major crimes that require detention, according to local media. On August 21, Public Prosecutor Saud al-Mu’jab issued a list of 25 major crimes that mandate arrest and pretrial detention, including types of border crimes, corruption, homicide, and offenses against national security, among others.
According to the law of criminal procedure, “no person shall be arrested, searched, detained, or imprisoned except in cases provided by law, and any accused person shall have the right to seek the assistance of a lawyer or a representative to defend him during the investigation and trial stages.” By law authorities may summon any person for investigation and may issue an arrest warrant based on evidence. In practice authorities frequently did not use warrants, and warrants were not required under the law in all cases.
The law requires authorities to file charges within 72 hours of arrest and hold a trial within six months, subject to exceptions specified by amendments to the law of criminal procedure and the counterterrorism law (see section 2.a.). Authorities may not legally detain a person under arrest for more than 24 hours, except pursuant to a written order from a public investigator. Authorities reportedly often failed to observe these legal protections, and there was no requirement to advise suspects of their rights.
The law specifies procedures required for extending the detention period of an accused person beyond the initial five days. Authorities may approve detentions in excess of six months in “exceptional circumstances,” effectively allowing individuals to be held in pretrial detention indefinitely in cases involving terrorism or “violations of state security.” There is a functioning bail system for less serious criminal charges. The PPO may order the detention of any person accused of a crime under the counterterrorism law for up to 30 days, renewable up to 12 months, and in state security cases up to 24 months with a judge’s approval.
By law defendants accused of any crime cited in the law are entitled to hire a lawyer to defend themselves before the court “within an adequate period of time to be decided by the investigatory body.” In cases involving terrorism or state security charges, detainees generally did not have the right to obtain a lawyer of their choice. The government provided lawyers to defendants who made a formal application to the Ministry of Justice to receive a court-appointed lawyer and proved their inability to pay for their legal representation.
There were reports authorities did not always allow legal counsel access to detainees who were under investigation in pretrial detention. Authorities indicated a suspect could be held up to 12 months in investigative detention without access to legal counsel if authorized by prosecutors. Judicial proceedings begin after authorities complete a full investigation.
The king continued the tradition of commuting some judicial punishments. Royal pardons sometimes set aside a conviction and sometimes reduced or eliminated corporal punishment. The remaining sentence could be added to a new sentence if the pardoned prisoner committed a crime subsequent to release.
Authorities commuted the sentences of some who had received prison terms. The counterterrorism law allows the PPO to stop proceedings against an individual who cooperates with investigations or helps thwart a planned terrorist attack. The law authorizes the SSP to release individuals already convicted in such cases.
Arbitrary Arrest: Rights groups received reports from families claiming authorities held their relatives arbitrarily or without notification of charges. During the year authorities detained without charge security suspects, persons who publicly criticized the government, Shia religious leaders, individuals with links to rights activists, and persons accused of violating religious standards.
On September 4, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the SCC sentenced six academics and journalists detained in 2017, including Abdullah al-Maliki, Fahd al-Sunaidi, Khalid al-Ajeemi, Ahmed al-Suwayan, Ibrahim al-Harthi, and Yousef al-Qassem, to prison sentences of three to seven years. Saudi rights activist Yahya al-Assiri stated the men were arbitrarily detained and that their convictions were based on solely on tweets.
Pretrial Detention: In August, ALQST and the Geneva-based MENA Rights Group lodged a complaint to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva over the “arbitrary” detention of Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz bin Salman and his father. In 2018 Prince Salman was detained along with 11 other princes after they staged what the PPO called a “sit-in” at a royal palace in Riyadh to demand the state continue to pay their electricity and water bills. Sources told AFP that the prince and his father have never been interrogated or charged since their detention began more than two and a half years ago.
Incommunicado detention was also a problem (see section 1.b.). Authorities reportedly did not always respect a detainees’ right to contact family members following detention, and the counterterrorism law allows the investigatory body to hold a defendant for up to 90 days in detention without access to family members or legal counsel (and the SCC may extend such restrictions beyond this period). Security and some other types of prisoners sometimes remained in prolonged solitary detention before family members or associates received information of their whereabouts, particularly for detainees in Mabahith-run facilities.
On September 6, HRW stated authorities denied some prominent detainees, including former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Muslim scholar Salman al-Odah, contact with their family members and lawyers for months. After almost three months in incommunicado detention, according to HRW, family members of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul said authorities allowed her parents to visit on August 31, following her six-day hunger strike; she started another hunger strike October 26 in protest of prison conditions (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees).
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Under the law detainees are not entitled to challenge the lawfulness of their detention before a court. In the case of wrongful detention, the law of criminal procedure, as well as provisions of the counterterrorism law, provide for the right to compensation if detainees are found to have been held unlawfully.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides that judges are independent and not subject to any authority other than the provisions of sharia and the laws in force. Nevertheless, the judiciary, the PPO, and the SSP were not independent entities, as they were required to coordinate their decisions with executive authorities, with the king and crown prince as arbiters. Although public allegations of interference with judicial independence were rare, the judiciary reportedly was subject to influence, particularly in the case of legal decisions rendered by specialized judicial bodies, such as the SCC, which rarely acquitted suspects. Human rights activists reported that SCC judges received implicit instructions to issue harsh sentences against human rights activists, reformers, journalists, and dissidents not engaged in violent activities. Activists also reported that judicial and prosecutorial authorities ignored due process-related complaints, including lack of access by lawyers to their clients at critical stages of the judicial process, particularly during the pretrial investigation phase.
Women’s ability to practice law was limited; there were no women on the High Court or Supreme Judicial Council and no female judges or public prosecutors. On June 17, the Shoura rejected a proposal to study appointing women as judges in personal status courts. In August 2019, however, the PPO announced the appointment of 50 women as public prosecution investigators, marking the first time that women had held this position. On June 4, the PPO appointed an additional 53 women as public prosecution investigators.
Defendants are able to appeal their sentences. The law requires a five-judge appellate court to affirm a death sentence, which a five-judge panel of the Supreme Court must unanimously affirm. Appellate courts may recommend changes to a sentence, including increasing the severity of a lesser sentence (up to the death penalty), if the trial court convicted the defendant of a crime for which capital punishment is permitted.
Defendants possess the right under the law to seek commutation of a death sentence for some crimes and may receive a royal pardon under specific circumstances (see section 1.d.). In some prescribed cases (qisas), the families of the deceased may accept compensation from the family of the person convicted in an unlawful death, sparing the convicted from execution.
On February 6, Amnesty International reported that authorities were using the SCC “to systematically silence dissent.” Amnesty accused the SCC of using overly broad counterterror and anticybercrime laws in unfair trials to hand down prison sentences of up to 30 years as well as the death penalty to human rights defenders, writers, economists, journalists, religious clerics, reformists, and political activists, particularly from the Shia minority. Amnesty asserted that “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.”
On April 17, HRW reported 68 Palestinians and Jordanians on trial before the SCC on the charge of links with an unnamed “terrorist organization” were subjected to a range of abuses, including forced disappearances, long-term solitary confinement, and torture, according to their family members, and that their trial raised serious due process concerns.
In the judicial system, there traditionally was no published case law on criminal matters, no uniform criminal code, no presumption of innocence, and no doctrine of stare decisis that binds judges to follow legal precedent. The Justice Ministry continued to expand a project started in 2007 to distribute model judicial decisions to ensure more uniformity of legal application, and as recently as August 2019, the ministry published judicial decisions on its website. The law states that defendants should be treated equally in accordance with sharia. The Council of Senior Scholars, or the ulema, an autonomous advisory body, issues religious opinions (fatwas) that guide how judges interpret sharia.
In the absence of a formalized penal code that details all criminal offenses and punishments, judges in the courts determine many of these penalties through their interpretations of sharia, which varied according to the judge and the circumstances of the case. Because judges have considerable discretion in decision making, rulings and sentences diverged widely from case to case.
Several laws, however, provide sentencing requirements for crimes including terrorism, cybercrimes, trafficking in persons, and domestic abuse. In 2016 the Ministry of Justice issued a compilation of previous decisions that judges could refer to as a point of reference in making rulings and assigning sentences.
Appeals courts cannot independently reverse lower-court judgments; they are limited to affirming judgments or returning them to a lower court for modification. Even when judges did not affirm judgments, appeals judges in some cases remanded the judgment to the judge who originally authored the opinion. This procedure sometimes made it difficult for parties to receive a ruling that differed from the original judgment in cases where judges hesitated to admit error. While judges may base their decisions on any of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, all of which are represented in the Council of Senior Scholars, the Hanbali School predominates and forms the basis for the country’s law and legal interpretations of sharia. Shia citizens use their legal traditions to adjudicate family law cases between Shia parties, although either party can decide to adjudicate a case in state courts, which apply Sunni legal traditions.
While the law states that court hearings shall be public, courts may be closed at the judge’s discretion. As a result, many trials during the year were closed. Since 2018 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs barred foreign diplomatic missions from attending court proceedings at the SCC as well as trials related to security and human rights issues. Diplomatic personnel were generally allowed to attend consular proceedings of their own citizens. Some family members of prisoners complained that neither they nor the legal representatives of the accused were permitted access to trials or notified about the status of trial proceedings. In a number of cases, family members were given only 24 hours’ notice before an SCC trial hearing.
According to the Ministry of Justice, authorities may close a trial depending on the sensitivity of the case to national security, the reputation of the defendant, or the safety of witnesses. Representatives of the HRC sometimes attended trials at the SCC.
According to the law, authorities must offer defendants a lawyer at government expense. In 2017 the Ministry of Justice stated that defendants “enjoy all judicial guarantees they are entitled to, including the right to seek the assistance of lawyers of their choosing to defend them, while the ministry pays the lawyer’s fees when the accused is not able to settle them.” Activists alleged that many political prisoners were not able or allowed to retain an attorney or consult with their attorneys during critical stages of the investigatory and trial proceedings. Detained human rights activists often did not trust the courts to appoint lawyers for them due to concerns of lawyer bias.
The law provides defendants the right to be present at trial and to consult with an attorney during the trial. The counterterrorism law, however, authorizes the attorney general to limit the right of defendants accused of terrorism to access legal representation while under investigation “whenever the interests of the investigation so require.” There is no right to discovery, nor can defendants view their own file or the minutes from their interrogation. Defendants have the right to call and cross-examine witnesses under the law. Activists reported, however, that SCC judges could decide to restrict this right in “the interests of the case.” The law provides that a PPO-appointed investigator question the witnesses called by the defendant during the investigation phase before the initiation of a trial. The investigator may also hear testimony of additional witnesses he deems necessary to determine the facts. Authorities may not subject a defendant to any coercive measures or compel the taking of an oath. The court must inform convicted persons of their right to appeal rulings.
The law does not provide for a right against self-incrimination.
The law does not provide free interpretation services, although services were often provided in practice. The law of criminal procedure provides that “the court should seek the assistance of interpreters,” but it does not obligate the court to do so from the moment the defendant is charged, nor does the law specify that the state will bear the costs of such services.
While sharia as interpreted by the government applies to all citizens and noncitizens, the law in practice discriminates against women, noncitizens, nonpracticing Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, and persons of other religions. In some cases the testimony of a woman equals half that of a man. Judges have discretion to discount the testimony of nonpracticing Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, or persons of other religions; sources reported judges sometimes completely disregarded or refused to hear testimony by Shia Muslims.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
The government maintained there were no political prisoners, including detainees who reportedly remained in prolonged detention without charge, while local activists and human rights organizations claimed there were “hundreds” or “thousands.” Credible reporting by advocacy groups and press suggested authorities detained persons for peaceful activism or political opposition, including nonviolent religious figures, women’s rights defenders, and human rights activists, and those who the government claimed posted offensive or antigovernment comments on social media sites.
In many cases it was impossible to determine the legal basis for incarceration and whether the detention complied with international norms and standards. During the year the SCC tried political and human rights activists for nonviolent actions unrelated to terrorism, violence, or espionage against the state. Authorities restricted attorneys’ access to detainees on trial at the SCC.
International NGOs, the United Nations, and others criticized the government for abusing its antiterrorism legal authorities to detain or arrest some dissidents or critics of the government or royal family on security-related grounds, who had not espoused or committed violence. At least 192 persons remained in detention for activism, criticism of government leaders or policies, impugning Islam or religious leaders, or “offensive” internet postings, including prominent activists such as Raif Badawi, Mohammed al-Qahtani, Naimah Abdullah al-Matrod, Maha al-Rafidi, Eman al-Nafjan, Waleed Abu al-Khair, and Nassima al-Sadah; clerics including former grand mosque imam Salih al-Talib; and Sahwa movement figures Safar al-Hawali, Nasser al-Omar, and others.
Between January and March, the Riyadh Criminal Court resumed trials against 11 women activists, including several arrested in 2018. Among them were Nassima al-Sadah, Samar Badawi, Mayaa al-Zahrani, Nouf Abdelaziz al-Jerawi, and Loujain al-Hathloul–all of whom remained detained and faced charges related to their human rights work and contact with international organizations, foreign media, and other activists. The women were accused of violating the cybercrimes law, which prohibits production of materials that harm public order, religious values, or public morals, and carries penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to three million riyals ($800,000). On November 25, all five appeared in criminal court, where the judge referred al-Hathloul’s case to the SCC. There was no information about the outcome of the hearing for al-Sadah, Badawi, al-Zahrani and al-Jerawi.
On August 26, media reported authorities severed contact between some detainees and their families, including Loujain al-Hathloul (see section 1.d.), Princess Basmah bint Saud, and Salman al-Odah.
On December 22, the Riyadh Criminal Court dismissed al-Hathloul’s complaint that she had been tortured during the first months of her detention. On December 28, the SCC found al-Hathloul guilty of violating the antiterrorism law, specifically by “seeking to implement a foreign agenda and change the Basic Law of Governance,” through online activity. She was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison with two years and 10 months of that suspended and credit for time served since her May 2018 arrest.
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country
In August, Saad al-Jabri, a former high-ranking Saudi intelligence official who fled the country in 2016, filed a suit in Canada alleging that a hit squad (Tiger Squad) had been sent to track and kill him in 2018. The team was reportedly stopped by Canadian border services and refused entry, around the same time that Saudi officials killed Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. The suit also alleged al-Jabri’s family members were held hostage in Saudi Arabia and that spyware was implanted on his smartphone. According to media reports, INTERPOL lifted a Red Notice that Saudi Arabia filed against him in 2017 on the basis that it was politically motivated.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Complainants claiming human rights violations generally sought assistance from the HRC or the NSHR, which either advocated on their behalf or provided courts with opinions on their cases. The HRC generally responded to complaints and could refer cases to the PPO; domestic violence cases were the most common. Individuals or organizations may petition directly for damages or government action to end human rights violations before the Board of Grievances, except in compensation cases related to state security, where the SCC handles remediation. The counterterrorism law contains a provision allowing detainees in Mabahith-run prisons to request financial compensation from the Ministry of Interior/SSP for wrongful detention beyond their prison terms. In some cases the government did not carry out judicially ordered compensation for unlawful detentions in a timely manner.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law prohibits unlawful intrusions into the privacy of persons, their homes, places of work, and vehicles. Criminal investigation officers are required to maintain records of all searches conducted; these records should contain the name of the officer conducting the search, the text of the search warrant (or an explanation of the urgency that necessitated the search without a warrant), and the names and signatures of the persons who were present at the time of search. While the law also provides for the privacy of all mail, telegrams, telephone conversations, and other means of communication, the government did not respect the privacy of correspondence or communications and used the considerable latitude provided by the law to monitor activities legally and intervene where it deemed necessary.
Authorities targeted family members of activists and critics of the government. On May 12, security officers raided the home of Saad al-Jabri’s brother, Abdulrahman, a professor at King Saud University, and detained him without explanation, according to HRW. On August 24, authorities arrested Saad al-Jabri’s son-in-law, Salem Almuzaini. His family said he was arrested without charge or justifiable cause, alleging the detention was in retaliation against and aiming to intimidate Saad al-Jabri for filing a lawsuit against Saudi government officials in a foreign court.
There were reports from human rights activists of governmental monitoring or blocking of mobile telephone or internet usage. The government strictly monitored politically related activities and took punitive actions, including arrest and detention, against persons engaged in certain political activities, such as calling for a constitutional monarchy, publicly criticizing senior members of the royal family by name, forming a political party, or organizing a demonstration (see section 2.a.). Customs officials reportedly routinely opened mail and shipments to search for contraband. In some areas, Ministry of Interior/SSP informants allegedly reported “seditious ideas,” “antigovernment activity,” or “behavior contrary to Islam” in their neighborhoods.
Encrypted communications were banned, and authorities frequently attempted to identify and detain anonymous or pseudonymous users and writers who made critical or controversial remarks. Government authorities regularly surveilled websites, blogs, chat rooms, social media sites, emails, and text messages. Media outlets reported that authorities gained access to dissidents’ Twitter and social media accounts and in some cases questioned, detained, or prosecuted individuals for comments made online. The counterterrorism law allows the Ministry of Interior/SSP to access a terrorism suspect’s private communications and banking information in a manner inconsistent with the legal protections provided by the law of criminal procedure.
The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) is charged with monitoring and regulating public interaction between members of the opposite sex, although in practice CPVPV authorities were greatly curtailed compared with past years.
g. Abuses in Internal Conflict
For information on Saudi Arabia’s conflict in Yemen previously found in this section, please see the executive summary and section 1.a. of this report and the Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Yemen.