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- Written by Eman Jueid
- Category: World News
The law, as written, described vague actions such as “endangering national unity” or “harming the reputation of the state” as being terrorist crimes and allowed for arrest and detention of citizens for an indefinite period when convicted by a special court. That court, the Specialized Criminal Court, whose existence was first made public in 2008 and is known to hold trials in secret without affording defendants the right to legal counsel, would have jurisdiction over all terrorist crimes. Among the crimes that could traditionally be thought of as acts of terrorism is questioning the integrity of the King or Crown Prince, which can be punishable by a minimum sentence of years in jail. The Saudi Interior Ministry would be given broad powers to act to protect state security without the need for judicial authority or supervision. No wonder the organization Human Rights Watch described the law as “a setback for human rights.”
The following month, a spokesman for the Saudi Shura Council announced that the law published by Amnesty had not been a final version. The government’s statement claimed that the law had been reviewed by the Shura Council and that some changes had been made to bring it into compliance with Islamic Shari’a law and to ensure that it did not violate citizens’ rights or existing laws. While the original draft of the law as published by Amnesty appeared to give the Council only thirty days to review the law, a government spokesman said that a second review of the law was also scheduled. Saudi human rights activist Waleed Abu Alkhair warns, however, that any changes the Shura Council makes to the law may be overridden.
Abu Alkhair himself has recently been imprisoned by the Saudi government. Arrested in September and charged with “offending the judiciary,” “communicating with foreign agencies,” “asking for a constitutional monarchy,” “participating in media to distort the reputation of the country,” and “incitement of public opinion against the public order of the country.” His arrest appears to stem from two petitions he signed earlier in 2011. One petition called for the creation of an elected parliament with full legislative power, the separation of executive powers between the king and a prime minister, and the release of thousands of political prisoners. The second petition sought the election of legislative bodies at the local and national levels as well as the addition of human rights protections to the Saudi Basic Law. Abu Alkhair has frequently been threatened with arrest by the Interior Ministry both for his management of a Facebook group that monitors Saudi human rights, and for his professional activities as a lawyer (he often serves in defense of those accused of violating anti-terrorism laws).
Also arrested was Khaled al-Johani, a Saudi schoolteacher, who spoke to a foreign news crew about his desire for an end to censorship in the Saudi press. Al-Johani predicted his arrest prior to being the only attendant at a “day of rage” protest in Riyadh. He was charged with supporting a protest and communicating with foreign media. He was reportedly held in prison for nine months while awaiting trial, including two months in solitary confinement. Many others have been arrested for “inciting public opinion” or other similar charges and have faced trials before the Specialized Criminal Court. Several human rights organizations are now concerned that if the new anti-terrorism statute is passed, the very worst of these human rights violations will become codified as law.
While the law has not yet been enacted, it is still a cause for concern. Writing recently for Arab News, Dr. Khalid Alnowaiser, a noted Saudi lawyer in Riyadh, called on the government to prevent its passage. Alnowaiser has been an outspoken critic of Saudi law and policy, taking on religious intolerance in the Kingdom, corporal punishment and even anti-Americanism. In his most recent article, Alnowaiser calls out that the proposed law may restrict personal freedom and promote violation of basic human rights. He also points out the concern that even an amended version of the law may create (or solidify) the appearance that Saudi Arabia is a nation that arbitrarily and oppressively curtails the basic rights of its citizens. Lastly, he questions whether this law is not the beginning of more laws that may interfere with the rights of Saudi citizens.
Saudi Arabia is not, of course, alone in considering laws that curtail personal freedoms in the name of security. Egypt, Israel and the United States are all facing challenges to similar laws, along with many other nations. Egypt’s ruling military government is routinely referring civilians to military tribunals and activists such as Mikail Nabil Sanad and Alaa Abd al-Fatah remain jailed for expressing themselves. In Israel, a law is currently being debated that would subject certain NGOs to possibly crippling economic sanctions if they are deemed to be primarily foreign funded or “particularly dangerous.” The United States Senate recently passed an amendment to a defense appropriations bill that has many questioning whether it would sanction indefinite military detention of US citizens arrested within the nation’s borders. The global specter of terrorism or fear of “the other” remains a pervasive issue around the world, although the greater threat appears to personal freedoms and rights.By Ted Graham, Aslan Media Contributor
*Photo Credit: erjkprunczyk
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