a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. The Public Prosecutor’s Office, which reports to the king, is responsible for investigating whether security force actions were justifiable and pursuing prosecutions. 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.
On December 30, media reported that at least three of the individuals convicted in connection with the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, including Salah al-Tubaigy, Mustafa al-Madani, and Mansour Abahussein, were seen living in luxury villas in a government compound near Riyadh. There was no further action on the case during the year.
In September 2020 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.
In January the Saudi Human Rights Commission (HRC) announced a moratorium on the death penalty for drug-related offenses, but as of November the government had not published the relevant changes.
Discretionary (ta’zir) death penalty sentences for those who committed crimes as minors are forbidden, and minors’ prison sentences are capped at 10 years under an April 2020 royal decree. (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, still face the death penalty.
On February 8, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported prosecutors were seeking 10-year prison sentences, rather than the death penalty originally sought, for four men convicted of crimes committed as minors: Ahmad al-Faraj, Ali al-Batti, Ali al-Faraj, and Mohammed al-Faraj. They were arrested in 2017 and 2018 on protest-related charges.
On June 15, the government executed Mustafa Hashem al-Darwish, a 26-year-old Shia citizen convicted of terrorism charges. According to human rights organizations, he was detained in 2015 for alleged participation in riots between 2011 and 2012. The official charge sheet did not specify the dates his alleged crimes took place, making it unclear whether he had turned 18 by that time. Government officials claimed he was executed for other crimes committed as an adult but provided no further information.
On November 10, the Supreme Court overturned the death sentence conviction against Abdullah al-Huwaiti, arrested at age 14 and sentenced to death three years later on murder and armed robbery charges. Although no longer at risk of imminent execution, al-Huwaiti could still be sentenced to death at a later stage, since the case remained open, according to the European-Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR).
On October 27 and November 16, authorities released Shia prisoners Ali al-Nimr and Abdullah al-Zaher following completion of their 10-year prison sentences. Al-Nimr and al-Zaher, along with Dawood al-Marhoun who remained imprisoned, were arrested in 2012 as minors when they participated in political protests in 2011. In February all three had their death sentences commuted to 10 years in prison with credit for time served.
On November 10, the Supreme Court overturned the death sentence conviction against Abdullah al-Huwaiti, arrested at age 14 and sentenced to death three years later on murder and armed robbery charges.
On November 11, the ESOHR said at least four individuals accused of crimes committed as minors continued to face the possibility of capital punishment, including Sajjad al-Yassin, Jalal al-Labbad, Yusuf al-Manasif, and Hasan Zaki al-Faraj.
There were reports of disappearances carried out by or on behalf of government authorities.
According to the human rights organization al-Qst (ALQST) and Prisoners of Conscience, the whereabouts of physician and internet activist Lina al-Sharif were unknown since her arrest in May. The groups claimed al-Sharif was arrested for comments on social media regarding national politics and human rights issues.
There were no updates during the year regarding the whereabouts of several members of the royal family detained in March 2020, including the former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef Al Saud, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and Prince Nayef bin Ahmed Al Saud, a former head of army intelligence. The government did not announce their detentions, but Reuters reported that the princes were accused of “contact with foreign powers to carry out a coup d’etat.” In June NBC News reported the former crown prince was being held at a government compound in Riyadh, but there was no subsequent confirmation. According to the report, he had lost significant weight, could no longer walk unaided due to serious injuries from beatings, and was deprived of pain medication needed for previous injuries.
There was also no information during the year regarding the whereabouts of Prince Faisal bin Abdullah Al Saud, former head of the Saudi Red Crescent Society, also detained by security forces in March 2020.
On April 5, the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced Abdulrahman al-Sadhan to 20 years’ imprisonment, followed by a 20-year travel ban, on terrorism financing and facilitation charges. After his arrest in 2018, al-Sadhan was detained incommunicado for two years before being allowed to speak with his family. Legal proceedings against him began on March 3 in a process that Amnesty International said was marred by rights violations. Al-Sadhan reportedly tweeted comments critical of the government and sympathetic to ISIS, which family members claimed were satirical in nature. Family members alleged that al-Sadhan was physically abused during his detention and that he was unable to present a proper legal defense during his trial.
In July representatives of the family of Princess Basmah bint Saud reportedly filed an appeal to the Special Procedures experts at the UN Human Rights Council requesting their intervention to demand that authorities provide proof that she was alive. Detained since 2019, media and rights groups reported the princess had health problems, including heart issues and osteoporosis. On May 29, Forbes reported she had a brief telephone call with a relative.
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 states that public investigators shall not subject accused persons to coercive measures to influence their testimony. There were, however, reports by human rights organizations, the United Nations, and independent third parties of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
Officials from the Ministry of Interior, Public Prosecutor’s Office, and 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, but human rights organizations, the United Nations, and independent third parties said there were reports of torture and mistreatment of detainees by law enforcement officers. Amnesty International assessed in August that the Specialized Criminal Court “routinely condemns defendants to lengthy prison terms and even death sentences following convictions based on ‘confessions’ extracted through torture.” It alleged that Mustafa al-Darwish’s June execution resulted from confessions obtained by torture (see section 1.a.). Amnesty International reported that former detainees in Mabahith-run facilities alleged abuse, including beatings, sleep deprivation, and long periods of solitary confinement for nonviolent detainees.
On January 15, three UN special rapporteurs sent a letter to the government regarding Ali Hassan al-Rabea, expressing concern at the alleged use of torture and mistreatment to extract confessions and other evidence. In December 2020 the Supreme Court sentenced al-Rabea to death in a final ruling, not subject to appeal. As of year’s end, the sentence was pending King Salman’s approval. Al-Rabea was arrested in 2013, charged with participating in demonstrations, chanting antigovernment slogans, and possessing weapons. The primary evidence reportedly presented against him was the confession allegedly made after being subjected to torture and mistreatment.
In July HRW reported anonymous accounts from prison guards alleging torture of political detainees, including of prominent activists Loujain al-Hathloul and Mohammed al-Rabea. They alleged women’s rights activists and others were subjected to electric shocks, beatings, whippings, and sexual abuse. In February, following her sentencing and conditional release, al-Hathloul’s family reported that an appeals court rejected a lawsuit regarding her claims of torture. In December 2020 the Riyadh Criminal Court had previously dismissed her claim, citing a lack of evidence.
On July 28, the Washington Post reported that former interior ministry official Salem al-Muzaini was whipped, starved, beaten with iron bars, and subjected to electric shocks while held at two Saudi prisons and the Ritz-Carlton hotel from September 2017 until January 2018. He was originally detained in Dubai in 2017 and transferred to Saudi Arabia. Following his release in 2018, al-Muzaini allegedly disappeared in August 2020 after visiting a senior Saudi security official. Al-Muzaini was married to Hissah al-Muzaini, the daughter of Saad al-Jabri, a former high-ranking intelligence official who fled the country in 2016 (see sections 1.e. and 1.f.).
Courts continued to sentence individuals to corporal punishment. In March the Supreme Court clarified that the April 2020 royal decree that effectively eliminated flogging in most cases could be applied retroactively to sentences predating the decree. While flogging may no longer be used as a discretionary ta’zir sentence, it can still be used for three hudud crimes: drunkenness, sexual conduct between unmarried persons, and false accusations of adultery.
In March local media reported that the appeals court in Jeddah issued a final decision to overturn a sentence of 5,000 lashes for an individual convicted on drug trafficking charges. Reportedly the man instead received five years in prison, a five-year travel ban, and a large fine.
No additional information was available whether the remainder of the discretionary flogging element of activist Raif Badawi’s sentence had been dropped. Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes, 10 years in prison, and a 10-year travel ban in 2014 for insulting Islam, among other charges. He received 50 lashes in 2015, but further floggings were delayed due to health concerns.
Impunity was a problem in the security forces. Activists questioned the impartiality of procedures to investigate detainees’ complaints of torture and maltreatment. 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 occur. The government provided human rights training to security forces, but HRW continued to highlight concerns regarding abuse and deplorable conditions in detention centers.
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: A July 7 ALQST report alleged that detention and deportation facilities suffered from overcrowding, poor hygiene and sanitation, and medical and administrative neglect. On August 14, the ESOHR estimated that at least 20 persons had died due to prison conditions since 2010, adding that some of them appeared to have been tortured. The years of individual deaths were not provided.
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. Activists alleged that authorities sometimes detained individuals in the same cells as individuals with mental disabilities as a form of punishment and said 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.
Prisoners convicted on terrorism-related charges were often required to participate in government-sponsored rehabilitation programs before consideration of their release.
In February Attorney General Saud bin al-Mu’jab issued directives to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among prisoners and detainees. On April 22, local media reported that approximately 68 percent of detainees in state security prisons were vaccinated against COVID-19. Rights organizations said Zaheer Ali contracted COVID-19 during a prison outbreak in April and died, which they attributed to medical negligence by prison authorities. Allegedly arrested for his writings in 2017, Ali died on May 8 in al-Ha’ir Prison, the United Kingdom-based rights groups Sanad and ALQST reported.
On October 12, ALQST reported academic and activist Musa al-Qarni, who was arrested in 2007 along with several other activists and charged with forming a secret organization and spreading anarchy, was beaten to death by fellow inmates. No information was available whether any inmates were charged in connection with his killing.
Online activists reported that at least five members of an outlawed human rights organization, the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), along with 25 other detainees in al-Ha’ir Prison, participated in a hunger strike between March 7 and March 14, reportedly to protest denied family contact, poor food quality, and attacks by prisoners suffering from mental illness. ACPRA members Mohammed al-Qahtani, Fawza al-Harbi, Issa al-Nukhaifi, Fahad al-Arani, and Mohammed al-Hudaif participated, with Abdulaziz al-Sunaidi joining from Onayza Prison in al-Qassim. On March 14, Prisoners of Conscience announced that the strike was suspended after prison administrators agreed to meet their demands. On August 15, al-Qahtani restarted his hunger strike to protest prison administrators’ alleged reneging on the March agreement.
Administration: There was no information available on whether prisoners were able to submit allegations of mistreatment to prison or prosecutorial authorities without censorship or whether authorities responded or acted upon complaints. 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 gives the Public Prosecutor’s Office 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.”
The law 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 [now the Public Prosecutor’s Office].” Prisoners submitted complaints to the HRC, which had offices in a number of prisons, and to the quasi-governmental National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) for follow-up. Inmates, however, required approval from prison authorities to submit complaints to an HRC office.
The Public Prosecutor’s Office announced in July the launch of the Ma’akom system, which allows citizens and residents to submit complaints directly regarding illegal detention or violations of detainee rights, using the online platform Absher, a hotline telephone number, or in person. The Ministry of Interior-run website (Nafetha) provided detainees and their relatives access to a database containing information regarding the legal status of the detainee, including any scheduled trial dates.
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 pretrial 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). Starting on October 31, families of detainees who received two doses of an approved coronavirus vaccine could apply for prison visits. Family members of detained persons under investigation or in pretrial detention said family visits were typically not allowed, while others said visits or calls were extremely brief (less than five minutes). Authorities at times reportedly denied some detainees their weekly call for several months or years. Some family members of prisoners complained authorities canceled scheduled visits with relatives without reason.
Independent Monitoring: Independent institutions were not permitted to conduct regular, unannounced visits to places of detention, according to the UN Committee against Torture. Foreign diplomats regularly requested to attend non-consular trials of high-profile detainees but were not admitted into courtrooms. 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 7, local media reported the HRC conducted 1,538 prison visits during the fiscal year 2020-21, including visits to public prisons, security prisons, and various detention centers as well as “social observation centers” and girls’ welfare institutions.
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 State Security Presidency, to which the majority of forces with arrest powers reported, maintained and exercised broad authority to arrest and detain persons indefinitely without judicial oversight, notification of charges, or effective access to legal counsel or family, according to human rights groups.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law gives the Public Prosecutor’s Office “complete and independent powers” to identify major crimes that require detention, according to local media. In August 2020 the public prosecutor issued a list of 25 major crimes that mandate arrest and pretrial detention, including certain border crimes, corruption, homicide, and offenses against national security, among others.
According to the law, “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, which 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. There is a functioning bail system for less serious criminal charges. 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.” The Public Prosecutor’s Office 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.” 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. In cases involving terrorism or state security charges, detainees generally did not have the right to obtain a lawyer of their choice.
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 could set aside a conviction or reduce or eliminate 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 Public Prosecutor’s Office to stop proceedings against an individual who cooperates with investigations or cooperates in thwarting a planned terrorist attack. The law authorizes the State Security Presidency 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 May 6, Prisoners of Conscience reported that dozens of journalists and bloggers remained under arbitrary arrest. In November Prisoners of Conscience reported that authorities had detained blogger Zainab al-Hashemi and university student Asmaa al-Subaie since May without charge. The two were reportedly arrested with other online activists. As of year’s end, their whereabouts were unknown.
Pretrial Detention: In August 2020 ALQST and the Geneva-based MENA Rights Group lodged a complaint with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva regarding the “arbitrary” detention of Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz bin Salman Al Saud and his father. In February international media reported that the two were moved from a house in Riyadh to “an undisclosed location” at the end of November 2020. In 2018 Prince Salman was detained with 11 other princes after they staged what the prosecutor called a “sit-in” at a royal palace in Riyadh to demand the state continue to pay their electricity and water bills. Sources told Agence France Presse that the prince and his father had never been formally interrogated or charged.
Incommunicado detention occurred (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 (or longer) without access to family members or legal counsel. Security and 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.
During July and August, family members of Muslim scholar Salman al-Odah and Mohammed al-Qahtani (see section 1.c.) claimed authorities had denied them contact with their family members and lawyers for months. According to his wife, al-Qahtani was able to call her on August 19 following a four-day hunger strike and after almost four months of incommunicado detention. In September al-Odah’s family reportedly said his eyesight had deteriorated during his solitary confinement.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: By 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. 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 Specialized Criminal Court, which rarely acquitted suspects. The Specialized Criminal Court and the Public Prosecutor’s Office were not independent entities, as they reportedly were required to coordinate their decisions with executive authorities, including the king and crown prince. Human rights activists claimed that the court’s 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.
On March 8, local media reported that the Supreme Court eliminated the use of oaths (al-qisama) as evidence in murder or manslaughter cases. Under Islamic law, the victim’s family is allowed to take up to 50 oaths to officially confirm that the suspect was guilty if there was no direct evidence or if eyewitness testimony was invalid under Islamic law, as in the case of child witnesses.
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 then 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 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 August 3, Amnesty International assessed that trials before the Specialized Criminal Court were “intrinsically unfair, with defendants subjected to flawed procedures that violate both Saudi and international laws.” Amnesty accused authorities of using the court to crack down on freedom of expression through the prosecution, sentencing, and resentencing processes, as well as bans on public speaking, human rights work, use of social media, and travel. Among others, Amnesty cited the trial and conviction of activist Israa al-Ghomgham, who was sentenced to eight years in prison and an eight-year travel ban in February for charges related to her peaceful activism and participation in antigovernment protests.
On August 16, the court of appeals increased the sentence of activist Khalid al-Omair from seven to nine years without explanation, according to ALQST.
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. In February the crown prince announced forthcoming legal reforms that would impact the personal status law, civil transactions law, evidence law, and discretionary sentencing, aiming to increase predictability and transparency in the legal system and expand protections for women (see section 6, Women). On December 28, the Council of Ministers enacted the evidence law.
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 provide sentencing requirements for crimes, including terrorism, cybercrimes, trafficking in persons, and domestic abuse.
The Justice Ministry continued to expand a project started in 2007 to distribute model judicial decisions to ensure more uniformity of legal application, and 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 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 of innocence or guilt; they are limited to affirming judgments, modifying sentences, 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 were represented in the Council of Senior Scholars, the Hanbali School predominated and formed the basis for the country’s law and legal interpretations of sharia. Shia citizens used 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. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs continued to not approve foreign diplomatic missions to attend court proceedings at the Specialized Criminal Court 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 of the status of trial proceedings. In a number of cases, family members were given only 24 hours’ notice before a 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. HRC representatives sometimes attended trials at the Specialized Criminal Court.
By 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. Activists reported, however, that Specialized Criminal Court judges could decide to restrict this right in “the interests of the case.” The law provides that a prosecutor-appointed investigator may 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 for free interpretation services, although services were often provided in practice. The law 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 certain circumstances, the testimony of a woman equals one-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.” 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 Specialized Criminal Court tried political and human rights activists for nonviolent actions unrelated to terrorism, violence, or espionage against the state, and authorities restricted attorneys’ access to detainees on trial.
International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the United Nations, and others criticized the government for abusing its antiterrorism legal authorities to detain or arrest on security-related grounds some dissidents or critics of the government or royal family who had not espoused or committed violence. According to the NGOs Prisoner of Conscience and EOHSR, more than 100 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, and Waleed Abu al-Khair; clerics including former grand mosque imam Salih al-Talib; and Sahwa movement figures Safar al-Hawali, Nasser al-Omar, and others.
Between February and June, several women’s rights activists, who had been arrested in 2018 and convicted on charges related to their human rights work and their contact with international organizations, foreign media, and other activists, were released after having their sentences suspended or reduced to time served, although they reportedly continued to be subject to travel bans. Sentenced by the Specialized Criminal Court in December 2020 to five years and eight months in prison, with credit for time served, Loujain al-Hathloul and Mayaa al-Zahrani were released in February and March, respectively. Prisoners of Conscience also reported the release of Nouf Abdelaziz al-Jerawi in February. Rights organizations reported that Nassima al-Sadah and Samar Badawi, who were sentenced to five years in prison with half suspended in 2018, were released on June 27 at the conclusion of their remaining sentences. Al-Hathloul appealed her sentence, but on May 9, she was informed by state security officials that the Supreme Court upheld her conviction on terrorism charges. While rights organizations welcomed the releases, they criticized the imposition of travel bans, as well as reports that the released rights activists were instructed not to make public statements regarding their sentences.
In October the Specialized Criminal Court of Appeals upheld the six-year prison sentence of women’s rights activist Mohammed al-Rabea. In April the court had sentenced al-Rabea under the country’s counterterrorism law to six years’ imprisonment, with credit for time served, and a travel ban. Detained in 2018 along with al-Hathloul and Aziza al-Yousef, al-Rabea’s arrest was also tied to his activism for women’s right to drive and against the guardianship system.
On September 23, authorities released human rights defender Abdulrahman al-Shumiri following completion of his 15-year prison sentence, according to ALQST and Prisoners of Conscience. He remained subject to a travel ban for 15 years following his release. Al-Shumiri, a retired academic, was arrested in 2007 and sentenced on charges including disobeying the ruler.
In April the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced activist Yasser al-Ayyaf to two years in prison, according to Prisoners of Conscience. Al-Ayyaf was arrested in 2018, reportedly for his activism and participation in peaceful sit-ins, marches, and protests between 2011 and 2013. He spoke out in support of detainees held without trial and those who were detained after completing their sentences, including his father, whom he claimed was incarcerated beyond the end of his 10-year sentence. Al-Ayyaf was released in September.
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country
Extraterritorial Killing, Kidnapping, Forced Returns, or Other Violence or Threats of Violence: There were reports that authorities attempted to intimidate critics living abroad, pressured their relatives in the country, and in certain instances abducted or pressured dissidents and repatriated them to the country. A Freedom House report on transnational repression released in February reported 10 cases of Saudi transnational repression carried out in recent years against former government officials and activists living abroad.
Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion: In July the New York Times reported that since 2018, Saudi Arabia had used Israeli cybersurveillance firms’ spyware to monitor dissidents and political opponents at home and abroad. A July 18 Amnesty International report alleged that an investigation into the Israeli cybersurveillance firm NSO Group revealed evidence that the Saudi government used its Pegasus software against Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and his family members, including his fiancee, former wife, and son. Other media reported that Khashoggi’s associates Yahya Assiri, Omar Abdulaziz, and Ghanem al-Masari were also targeted by the software.
On February 27, the Washington Post reported that Saudi dissident Ahmed Abdullah al-Harbi disappeared while visiting the Saudi embassy in Ottawa in January and later reappeared in Saudi Arabia. Activists alleged his return was coerced. After his visit to the embassy in Ottawa, al-Harbi reportedly called two friends and stated he had been pressured during interrogation to reveal the names of activists and believed his family in Saudi Arabia was being threatened. Al-Harbi had received asylum in Canada in 2019 after making statements critical of the Saudi government during his studies in the United States and was cooperating with activists critical of the government. Al-Harbi’s whereabouts following his return to Saudi Arabia remained unknown as of December.
In February media reported that Saad al-Jabri, a former high-ranking Saudi intelligence official who fled the country in 2016, filed a second lawsuit in the United States alleging that Saudi officials tried to lure his daughter, Hissah al-Muzaini, to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2019 (see section 1.c.). The Wall Street Journal reported on January 27 that 10 Saudi state-owned companies filed a civil suit in Canada against Saad al-Jabri, alleging embezzlement. Activists and al-Jabri’s family claimed that the Canadian lawsuit against him was politically motivated. In an October 23 interview on 60 Minutes, al-Jabri reiterated claims that a hit squad had been sent to kill him in 2018 and asserted that his son Omar and daughter Sarah had been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia to force his return to the country (see section 2.b.). The two were arrested in March 2020 and held in incommunicado detention, according to HRW. In November 2020 a court sentenced Omar and Sarah al-Jabri to, respectively, nine and six and one-half years in prison for money laundering and attempting escape. HRW reported an appeals court upheld their sentences in December 2020.
Misuse of International Law-enforcement Tools: There were reports that the government attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated purposes as reprisal against specific individuals located outside the country.
Activists claimed that Saudi Arabia misused an INTERPOL notice to secure the February arrest in Morocco of a government critic, Osama al-Hasani, a citizen of Saudi Arabia and Australia. He was deported to Saudi Arabia in March. HRW claimed that court documents showed Saudi authorities had previously cleared him of the charge of auto theft that was the basis for the Saudi INTERPOL notice. On March 12, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights sent Moroccan authorities a letter urging them not to deport al-Hasani due to fears that he could face torture in Saudi Arabia. A Moroccan court approved al-Hasani’s extradition to Saudi Arabia on March 13, according to press reports. On September 3, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced al-Hasani to four years’ imprisonment.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Complainants claiming human rights violations generally sought assistance from the HRC or the NSHR, which sometimes advocated on their behalf or provided courts with opinions on their cases. The HRC generally responded to complaints and can refer cases to the Public Prosecutor’s Office; 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 Specialized Criminal Court handles remediation. The counterterrorism law contains a provision allowing detainees in Mabahith-run prisons to request financial compensation from the Ministry of Interior, State Security Presidency, or both 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.
In June dissident Abdullah al-Odah, son of prominent detained cleric Salman al-Odah (see section 1.d., Pretrial Detention), alleged that 17 of his family members were banned from travel and that his uncle, Khalid al-Odah, was arrested for tweeting about the cleric’s arrest.
There were reports from human rights activists of governmental monitoring or blocking of mobile phone or internet usage. (See section 1.e., Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion, for reporting regarding the government’s purported use of Pegasus software to monitor activists and their families and friends.) 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 or publicly criticizing senior members of the royal family by name (see section 2.a.). Customs officials reportedly routinely opened mail and shipments to search for contraband. Informants allegedly reported “seditious ideas,” “antigovernment activity,” or “behavior contrary to Islam” in their neighborhoods.
Use of encrypted communications by private citizens was 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 critics’ and activists’ Twitter and other social media accounts and in some cases questioned, detained, or prosecuted individuals for comments made online. The counterterrorism law allows the government 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. Conflict-related Abuses
Saudi Arabia continued to conduct military operations in support of the UN-recognized government of Yemen against the Houthi militants.
The United Nations, NGOs, media outlets, as well as humanitarian and international organizations, reported what they characterized as disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force by all parties to the continuing conflict, causing civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure from shelling and airstrikes. The UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts (GEE) concluded in September that the government of Yemen, Houthis, the Saudi-led coalition, and the Southern Transitional Council were “responsible for human rights violations including arbitrary deprivation of life, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, gender-based violence, including sexual violence, torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, the recruitment and use in hostilities of children, the denial of fair trial rights, violations of fundamental freedoms, and economic, social and cultural rights.” Additionally, the GEE specifically noted, “individuals in the [Saudi-led] coalition, in particular from Saudi Arabia, may have conducted airstrikes in violation of the principles of distinction, proportionality, and precaution, acts that may amount to war crimes.”
In 2016 the government of Saudi Arabia and other governments participating in the Saudi-led coalition established the Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAT), which consisted of military and civilian personnel from coalition countries, to investigate claims of civilian casualties linked to coalition air strikes or other coalition operations inside Yemen and coalition adherence to international humanitarian law. The JIAT held press conferences to explain the results of its investigations to the public. The GEE’s September report expressed concerns regarding the Saudi-led coalition’s investigation and prosecution efforts. The GEE also stated the JIAT did not provide detailed case summary information or supporting evidence.
On numerous occasions, Saudi civilians were injured and killed and civilian objects and critical infrastructure were damaged or destroyed by missile, rocket, drone, artillery, and maritime cross-border attacks by Houthi militants in Yemen aimed at Saudi territory.
Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen reportedly resulted in civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure on multiple occasions. A report by the NGO Mwatana for Human Rights alleged that all parties to the conflict, including the Saudi-led coalition, “likely violated prohibitions under international humanitarian law and international humanitarian law “ by depriving civilians of objects essential to their survival by targeting farms, water facilities, and artisanal fishing boats and equipment that destroyed, damaged or rendered useless objects essential to survival, namely agricultural areas, irrigation works, livestock, foodstuff, water infrastructure, fishing boats, and fishing equipment. According to the UN’s Civilian Impact Monitoring Project, Saudi-led coalition airstrikes accounted for 55 civilian casualty allegations in the first nine months of the year. Casualties linked to airstrikes were down 75 percent compared with the same period in 2020. The nonprofit organization Yemen Data Project, affiliated with the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, assessed civilian casualties linked to airstrikes in the first half of the year were the lowest of any six-month period since the start of the conflict. 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. During the last three months of the year, the Saudi-led coalition increased airstrikes in and around more-populated areas in response to increased Houthi cross-border attacks and Houthi ground offensive operations in Ma’rib and Shabwah, which resulted in an increase in civilian casualties.
Mwatana for Human Rights alleged that groups aligned with the Saudi-led coalition were responsible for the disappearance of seven civilians in Yemen from September 2020 to September 2021.