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Saudi Arabia: 32 People on Trial for Treason and Spying

(Feb. 29, 2016) On February 21, 2016, the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, began the trial of a group of 30 Saudis, an Afghani, and an Iranian on charges of treason and spying for Iran. The accused were allegedly in direct contact with the Iranian Intelligence Services, and some of them are said to have met with the Iranian Revolution Supreme Leader, Ali Khameini. The charges also include disclosing top secret military information detrimental to the national security of Saudi Arabia, its military forces, and the unity and security of its territories. (Charges of “High Treason” Against 30 Saudis Who Disclosed Secrets, AL HAYAT NEWSPAPER (Feb. 22, 2016) (in Arabic).)

Spying and treason are not part of the traditional Hudud or Qisas crimes articulated by the schools of Islamic legal thought and applicable in Saudi Arabia. Hudud crimes are those whose punishment is provided for in the Koran or the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed, and Qisas crimes are those which trespass on the person of the victim, including murder. Even though Saudi Arabia has enacted a number of laws to complement the Hudud and Qisas crimes, such as the Anti-Cyber Crime Law of 2007, no general penal code provision or law addressing spying or treason exists. (Anti-Cyber Crime Law (Mar. 26, 2007), Saudi Arabia Communications and Information Technology website (official translation).)

Moreover, a legal database on the death penalty maintained by Cornell University Law School contains the following statement about the offense of treason in Saudi Arabia:

We did not find any codified law on the offense of treason. The conditions under which treason was historically punished by death have been limited. Some scholars have confused the hadd penalty of death for rebellion—which was seen as treason—as a judicially enforceable penalty, but a discussion of the offense of rebellion shows that the hadd penalty, as conceived of by most schools, simply included the right of the ruler to kill when necessary in subduing a rebellion, which might include the right to pursue and dispatch fleeing rebels. (Saudi Arabia (information current as of Apr. 4, 2011), DEATH PENALTY DATABASE.)

Nevertheless, it is possible that the 32 accused individuals face the death penalty. A Human Rights Watch report states that judges in Saudi Arabia “can issue death sentences … on a ‘discretionary basis’ for any act that a judge considers merits the death penalty, even where those acts are not defined as criminal offenses.” (Saudi Arabia: Criminal Justice Strengthened, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH (Jan. 14, 2010).)