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Saudi Arabia: Human Rights Lawyer Convicted Under Anti-Terror Law

(July 10, 2014) On July 6, 2014, the Specialized Criminal Court of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, convicted and sentenced Walid abu al-Kheir, a Saudi lawyer and human rights activist, to 15 years in prison, a fine of 200,000 Saudi riyals (about US$53,300), and a ban on travel abroad for another 15 years. The crimes he was accused of committing include “inciting international organizations against the government” and “breaking allegiance to the ruler.” (New Anti-Terror Law Used to Imprison Saudi Arabian Human Rights Activist, Amnesty International website (July 7, 2014).)

The new anti-terror law on which the case was based was issued by Royal Decree No. m/16 of December 27, 2013. Articles 1 (a) and 3 of this Law make any attempt, peaceful or otherwise, to cause the government to do or not to do an act, irrespective of its nature, an offense of terrorism. (Anti-Terror Law [in Arabic], Bureau of Experts of the Council of Ministers website (Dec. 27, 2013).)

The Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Amnesty International criticized the Court’s decision, stating that “[b]y sentencing a peaceful activist to 15 years in prison, Saudi Arabia’s authorities are sending a clear message that vocal critics of the authorities will be severely punished simply for speaking out.” (New Anti-Terror Law Used to Imprison Saudi Arabian Human Rights Activist, supra.)

The Law also introduced certain unprecedented features that appear to place the authority of the Minister of the Interior beyond judicial oversight. For example, article 4 gives the Minister the power to issue arrest warrants according to whatever norms he sees fit against whoever is suspected of terrorist activities. While article 5 gives the Specialized Criminal Court the power to supervise arrests made by investigators beyond a six month period, renewable for one time, it is not clear whether such power extends to supervision of arrest warrants issued by the Minister of the Interior. Article 7 appears to suggest that the decision to release an arrestee depends totally on the determination of the Minister of the Interior, rather than of the Court. It states, “[n]o defendant may be provisionally released except by an order of the Minister of the Interior or his designee.” In addition to other powers, such as ordering the searches of homes and offices as he deems appropriate (art. 16), the Minister of the Interior may also order the early release of any convicted person (art. 24.) (Anti-Terror Law (Dec. 27, 2013).)