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. On January 20, the London-based Saudi human rights group ALQST reported that Islamic scholar Sheikh Ahmed al-Amari died as a result of poor prison conditions and possible torture. Al-Amari, the former dean of the School of Quran at the University of Medina, was detained in July 2018 and suffered a brain hemorrhage on January 2. The government did not formally charge Al-Amari with a crime, and the specific reasons for his detention were not disclosed. The Twitter account Prisoners of Conscience, which documents human rights cases in the country, asserted his death was due to “intentional neglect” by prison authorities. On November 13, family members of Islamic scholar Sheikh Fahd al-Qadi announced that he died in prison; the circumstances surrounding his death were unknown. Detained since 2016, al-Qadi was sentenced in October to six years in prison. Prisoners of Conscience reported he was detained after sending a letter of advice to the Royal Court.
According to an August Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, Ethiopian migrants crossing the border in rural, mountainous areas from Yemen’s Saada Governorate into Saudi Arabia’s Jizan Province reported being shot at with live ammunition by Saudi border guards, sometimes without warning. Migrants reported witnessing others being shot in the leg and chest and seeing “many dead people at the border.”
On December 23, a court sentenced 11 government agents accused of killing journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in October 2018. The court did not publicly name the defendants but sentenced five to death; three to prison sentences ranging from seven to 10 years; and ruled that guilt could not be established in the case of three others–including the former deputy director of the General Intelligence Presidency. The defendants, prosecutors, and victim’s family can appeal the verdicts. No additional individuals were believed to be under continuing investigation. In an op-ed column published on the day of the verdicts, UN special rapporteur Agnes Callamard stated the trial was “grossly inadequate” and did not meet “even minimum international standards.” A government official stated in a press conference following the announcement of the verdicts that investigators did not indict former royal court official Saud al-Qahtani due to “insufficient evidence.” Human rights groups asserted the lack of significant prison sentences for the most senior officials suspected of involvement in the killing was indicative of a climate of impunity for human rights violations in the country. Authorities allowed some diplomatic observers to attend trial hearings during the year.
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. The government, however, frequently implemented capital punishment for nonviolent drug trafficking offenses. As of November 11, the country carried out 177 executions, 77 of which were for drug-related offenses. According to Amnesty International, this was the highest number of executions in a single year since 1995, when authorities carried out 192 executions.
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. 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, including 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 1, human rights groups reported the public prosecutor was no longer seeking the death penalty for female activist Israa al-Ghomgham, held since 2015 after participating in antigovernment protests in the Eastern Province. She was facing trial before the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) along with five other individuals, including her husband, on terrorism and conspiracy charges.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as Amnesty International asserted that many of those executed during the year were convicted in trials that did not meet international minimum fair-trial standards. On April 23, the Ministry of Interior announced the execution of 37 citizens in Riyadh, Mecca, Medina, the Eastern Province, Qassim, and Asir regions in connection with “terrorism crimes.” The mass execution was the largest since 2016. The Ministry of Interior stated the culprits “adopted extremist terrorist ideology and formed terrorist cells to spread corruption, insecurity, chaos…in addition to attacking security headquarters by using explosive bombs.” Amnesty condemned the executions, stating, “The majority of those executed were Shi’a men who were convicted after sham trials that violated international fair-trial standards (and) which relied on confessions extracted through torture.”
The government also imposed death sentences for crimes committed by persons younger than 18. According to Amnesty International and the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR), at year’s end three individuals on death row were minors when detained or at the time they committed offenses. The new Juvenile Law (approved by Royal Decree No. M/113, dated August 1, 2018) sets the legal age at 18 based on the Hijri calendar and in some cases permits detention of minors in a juvenile facility for up to 15 years if the crime is otherwise punishable by death. The law, however, does not categorically prohibit executions of minors; Article 16 of the law states the provisions of the Juvenile Law shall not prejudice the applicable sharia provisions related to hudood or qisas crimes. Hudood crimes have punishments fixed in the Quran, and in qisas cases, the family of an unlawfully killed person retains the right to insist on execution.
In a statement after the mass executions in April, UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet noted, “[i]t is particularly abhorrent that at least three of those killed were minors at the time of their sentencing.” Although disputed by authorities, the ESOHR claimed at least six of the executed were minors at the time of their alleged offenses: Abdullah Salman al-Sarih and Abdulkarim Mohammad al-Hawaj, whose charges date back to age 16, and Said Mohammad al-Sakafi, Salman Amin al-Quraysh, Mujtaba Nadir al-Sweiket, and Abdulaziz Hassan al-Sahwi, whose charges date back to age 17.
At year’s end the government had not carried out the execution of Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr, sentenced to death in 2014 for crimes he allegedly committed when he was 17. Al-Nimr 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 was the nephew of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, executed in 2016.
Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawood al-Marhoon, both Shia, faced execution in connection with their involvement in antigovernment protests; at the time of their arrests in 2012, al-Zaher and al-Marhoon were 16 and 17, respectively.
On June 16, Reuters reported the SCC reduced the sentence against Murtaja Qureiris from the death penalty to a 12-year prison term. 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.
There were several terrorist attacks in the country during the year, but unlike in the previous year, there were no reports of deaths of civilians or security officials resulting from these attacks.
There were reports of disappearances carried out by or on behalf of government authorities.
On May 20, Reporters Without Borders stated that authorities were holding Abdel Rahman Farhaneh, a Jordanian journalist who disappeared in the east of the country in February, and Marwan al-Muraisi, a Yemeni journalist missing in Saudi Arabia since June 2018.
In 2018 the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances transmitted the case of humanitarian worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan to the government under its urgent action procedure. According to his family, al-Sadhan was disappeared in Riyadh in March 2018 and was reportedly subjected to “severe torture” by authorities. Al-Sadhan remained missing at year’s end.
ALQST called on authorities to investigate the disappearances of journalist Turki al-Jasser, who disappeared in 2018; Syrian Khaled Mohammed Abdulaziz, who disappeared in 2017 while performing the Hajj pilgrimage; and Sulaiman al-Dowaish, who disappeared in 2016 after posting tweets critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
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 (customary Islamic law), 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.
Multiple human rights organizations, the United Nations, and independent third parties noted numerous reports of torture and mistreatment of detainees by law enforcement officers. Human rights organizations reported the SCC based its decisions on confessions allegedly obtained through torture and then admitted as evidence.
Human rights organizations and media outlets reported some detained women’s rights activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, were subjected to torture including electrocution, beatings, whipping, and sexual assault.
On February 4, a panel of British parliamentarians issued a report accusing the government of subjecting detained women’s rights activists to torture and warning that the detainees might suffer serious long-term health problems if they did not they receive urgent medical care. Authorities did not respond to a request by the panel in January for access to the country and to the detained women’s rights advocates. On February 14, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning the detention and torture of some women’s right-to-drive activists detained since May 2018.
In March the lawyer for the family of dual U.S.-Saudi citizen Walid Fitaihi, who was reportedly detained as part of a 2017 anticorruption campaign, told reporters that Fitaihi had been subjected to routine abuse during his detention, including beatings and electrical shocks. Fitaihi was released on bond in late July but continued to face charges. Fitaihi and his dual U.S.-Saudi citizen family members in Saudi Arabia were also under an international travel ban.
Former detainees in facilities run by the Mabahith alleged that abuse included beatings, sleep deprivation, and long periods of solitary confinement for nonviolent detainees.
Officials from the Ministry of Interior, Public Prosecutor’s Office (PPO), and the governmental Human Rights Commission (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 regularly occurred, such as the Mabahith prison facilities. There were reports that defendants who requested copies of video footage from the ministry’s surveillance system to provide as evidence of torture did not receive it.
Courts continued to sentence individuals to corporal punishment, usually in the form of floggings, whippings, or lashings, a common punishment that government officials defended as punishment dictated by sharia. According to human rights activists, police conducted the floggings according to a set of guidelines determined by local interpretation of sharia. The police official administering the punishment must place a copy of the Quran under his arm that prevents raising the hand above the head, limiting the ability to inflict pain or injury on the person subjected to the punishment, and instructions forbid police from breaking the skin or causing scarring when administering the lashes. Human rights organizations disputed that officials implemented floggings according to these guidelines for all prisoners and characterized flogging as a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
There were no reported cases of judicially administered amputation during the year.
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: On March 31, The Guardian newspaper reported that “leaked medical reports” prepared for King Salman showed that political prisoners suffered from “malnutrition, cuts, bruises, and burns” as well as severe dehydration and denial of medical care.
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. Certain prisoners convicted on terrorism-related charges were required to participate in government-sponsored rehabilitation programs before consideration of their release.
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 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].” Under the law there is no right to submit complaints directly to judicial authorities or to challenge the legality of an individual’s detention before a court of law (habeas corpus). 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.
Recordkeeping 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. 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). Some family members of prisoners complained authorities canceled scheduled visits with relatives without reason.
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 visited individuals in detention, but the visits took place in a separate visitors’ center where conditions may have differed from those in the detention facilities holding the prisoners.
The government permitted the HRC and domestic quasi-governmental organizations, such as the NSHR, to monitor prison conditions. The organizations stated they visited prisons throughout the country and reported on prison conditions. On January 27, local media reported the HRC conducted 394 prison visits between September 2017 and September 2018, including visits to Mabahith prisons, criminal investigation prisons, and some military prisons as well as “social surveillance centers” and girls’ welfare institutions. The NSHR reportedly monitored health care in prisons and brought deficiencies to the attention of the PPO.
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
In 2017 King Salman issued a decree that created the PPO, (formerly the Bureau of Investigations and Public Prosecution or BIPP), establishing Saud bin Abdullah bin Mubarak al-Mu’jab as attorney general. The decree directed the PPO to report directly to the king (rather than the Ministry of Interior, to which the BIPP had reported). Human rights organizations criticized the move as a consolidation of power in the Royal Court that undermined the independence of the judiciary.
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 of criminal procedure 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 that authorities did not always allow legal counsel access to detainees who were under investigation in pretrial detention. Authorities indicated that 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, which in some cases took years.
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: Local human rights activists and diplomatic representatives reportedly received regular 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 women’s rights activists, and persons accused of violating religious standards.
On March 6, UN high commissioner for human rights Bachelet expressed concern “at the apparently arbitrary arrest and detention and alleged ill-treatment and torture of several women human rights defenders.”
On March 7, 36 countries issued a joint statement at the UN Human Rights Council expressing “significant concerns about reports of continuing arrests and arbitrary detention of human rights defenders in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” The group expressed particular concern “about the use of the counterterrorism law and other national security provisions against individuals peacefully exercising their rights and freedoms.”
In April activists reported that authorities released poet Nawaf al-Rasheed, a Saudi citizen with dual Qatari nationality, after 10 months in detention for unspecified reasons. Kuwaiti authorities deported al-Rasheed to Saudi Arabia in May 2018 at the Saudi government’s request.
Pretrial Detention: The United Nations and international human rights organizations reported detention cases that exceeded the maximum period allowed under the law. In a May 2018 statement, HRW noted that authorities had detained thousands of persons for more than six months–in some cases for more than a decade–without referring them to courts for criminal proceedings, and that the number held for excessively long periods had apparently increased dramatically in recent years. During the year HRW reported the government continued this practice of long-term arbitrary detention.
On January 30, the Royal Court announced the end of the anticorruption campaign launched in 2017 (see section 4). On February 18, HRW called on authorities “to immediately clarify whether those who remained in detention face charges in connection with the anticorruption campaign or for other recognizable criminal activity, and if not, the authorities should release them immediately…holding detainees without charge or trial for 16 months only reinforces the reality that the Saudi corruption campaign has taken place completely outside the rule of law.”
Incommunicado detention was also a problem. 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 January 25, Amnesty International reported that at least 10 women activists arrested in May 2018 were held incommunicado in a secret prison, where they were allegedly subjected to severe torture. On March 14, then HRC president Bandar al-Aiban asserted that there were no secret prisons and detention centers and that secret detention was prohibited.
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, PPO, and 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.
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 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 October 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 legal representatives were permitted access to trials or notified about the status of trial proceedings. SCC officials sometimes banned female relatives from attending due to the absence of women officers to conduct security inspections of the women upon entry to the courtroom. 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, however, reported the process for applying for a court-appointed lawyer was difficult and cumbersome. Many said detained activists 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, imams deemed to have strayed from the official religious line, Shia activists, women’s rights defenders, other 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. Those who remained imprisoned after trial, including persons who were political activists openly critical of the government, were often convicted of terrorism-related crimes. 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. On February 14, the European Parliament called on the government to immediately and unconditionally release “women’s rights defenders and all human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and other prisoners of conscience detained and sentenced merely for exercising their right to freedom of expression and for their peaceful human rights work.”
On September 23, nearly two dozen countries delivered a joint statement at the UN Human Rights Council criticizing the government for its treatment of dissidents, journalists, and women activists and stating they were “concerned at reports of torture, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, unfair trials, and harassment of individuals engaged in promoting and defending human rights.”
At least 120 persons remained in detention for activism, criticism of government leaders, impugning Islam or religious leaders, or “offensive” internet postings, including prominent activists such as Raif Badawi, Mohammed al-Qahtani, 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. Prominent Muslim scholars Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari also remained in detention for associations and views deemed to be supportive of groups the government declared illegal or extremist (including the Muslim Brotherhood).
On March 13, the Riyadh Criminal Court opened trials against 11 women activists, including several arrested in mid-2018. The activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef, and Hatoon al-Fassi, faced charges related to their human rights work and contact with international organizations, foreign media, and other activists. The women were accused of violating Article Six of the cybercrimes law, which prohibits production of materials that harm public order, religious values, public morals or storing that material via an information network. Violation of Article Six carries penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to three million riyals ($800,000). Between March and September, authorities provisionally released eight of them, including al-Nafjan, al-Yousef, and al-Fassi. They continued to face criminal charges.
In April Amnesty International reported that authorities arrested at least seven individuals–including journalists, writers, and academics–some of whom had expressed their support for prominent activists who were arrested in 2018 for their advocacy for the right of women to drive. Some had already been under a travel ban since February, according to Amnesty International and ALQST.
On June 27, women’s rights activist Samar Badawi appeared at the SCC for the first time since her arrest in July 2018.
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.
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.
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 as well as 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) monitored and regulated public interaction between members of the opposite sex, although in practice CPVPV authorities were greatly curtailed compared with past years, and mixed-gender events became more common during the year.
g. Abuses in Internal Conflict
In 2015 Saudi officials announced the formation of a coalition to counter the 2014 attempted overthrow of the Yemeni government by militias of the Ansar Allah movement (also known colloquially as “Houthis”) and forces loyal to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Membership in the coalition included the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Somalia, Sudan, and Senegal. The Saudi-led coalition continued conducting air and ground operations in Yemen, actions initiated in 2015.
Killings: The United Nations, 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 rebels, and other combatants. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), from March 2015 to June 2019 there were at least 18,922 civilian casualties, with 7,292 killed and 11,630 injured in the conflict, with a 12 percent increase in the civilian death toll from June 2018 to June 2019. Since the conflict began, more than 7,500 children had been killed or injured. UNICEF reported that since December 2018, an average of eight children per day were killed due to war-related violence. The UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen assessed the actual death toll was likely higher than these estimates, in view of restrictions on UN researchers’ access.
Saudi-led coalition airstrikes reportedly resulted in civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure on multiple occasions. In March a Saudi airstrike hit close to a hospital 60 miles northwest of Saada. The NGO Save the Children, which supported the hospital, reported that eight persons were killed, including five children, and several were unaccounted for following the strike.
The International Committee of the Red Cross reported that on September 1 an airstrike hit a building serving as a Houthi detention facility in Dhamar. The Red Cross estimated more than 100 prisoners were killed in the attack and that another 40 were wounded. The Saudi-led coalition acknowledged it struck the facility as part of an operation against arms depots in the area, noting that the Houthis had not declared it on the no-strike list.
The government established the JIAT in 2016 to identify lessons and corrective actions and to implement national accountability mechanisms, as appropriate. The Riyadh-based group consisted of military and civilian members from coalition member states who investigated allegations of civilian casualties as well as claims by international organizations that humanitarian aid convoys and infrastructure were targeted by the coalition. The JIAT announced the results of numerous investigations during the year, largely absolving the coalition of responsibility in civilian deaths in the incidents reviewed. The Saudi government did not prosecute any cases based on JIAT findings. The OHCHR and others asserted the JIAT’s investigations did not provide sufficient transparency on the targeting process for strikes. HRW stated the JIAT’s public conclusions raised serious questions regarding the ways in which the JIAT conducted investigations and applied international humanitarian law.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: Yemen’s Houthi militants conducted missile, rocket, drone, and artillery attacks into Saudi Arabia, including launching more than 110,000 projectiles into Saudi territory since the beginning of the conflict in 2015. In 2018-2019 authorities reported some of these projectiles had damaged airports, schools, homes, hospitals, mosques, and critical energy infrastructure. In May a drone attack claimed by the Houthis damaged the country’s East-West oil pipeline, the country’s main cross-country oil link. In August Houthi militants attacked with armed drones the Shaybah oil facility in the Eastern Province. In September state-owned Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais were attacked by drones and missiles, damaging and temporarily taking offline half of the country’s oil production capacity. Houthi militants in Yemen claimed responsibility, but the government concluded that Iran was responsible for the attacks. There were no reports of deaths or injuries from the attack.
Because of security concerns, authorities restricted categories of imports allowed to arrive at Yemeni ports. In order to facilitate commercial cargo flows into Yemeni Red Sea Ports, coalition officers carried out an inspection and approval regime coordinated with the United Nations via the United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen and the Defense Ministry-hosted Evacuation and Humanitarian Operations Committee. During some periods the committee barred fuel and some categories of materials, including those provided by humanitarian relief agencies, from entering the key Houthi-held Yemeni port of Hudaydah. Commercial imports into Yemen during the year remained well below pre-2015 figures. Sana’a International Airport remained closed throughout the year to commercial traffic.
For additional details, including additional information on the Saudi-led coalition’s operations in Yemen, see the Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights for Yemen.