UN expert seeks urgent review of Saudi terrorism law

AFP , Thursday 4 May 2017

Ben Emmerson, Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), speaks during a press conference held in Riyadh on May 4, 2017, at the end of a visit to Saudi Arabia (Photo: AFP)

Saudi Arabia should urgently review its definition of terrorism under a law used to prosecute non-violent journalists and human rights defenders, a United Nations special rapporteur said on Thursday.

After a visit to the kingdom, Ben Emmerson told reporters that a 2014 counter-terrorism law contains an "unacceptably broad definition" of the crime and does not comply with international rights standards.

"I strongly condemn the use of counter-terrorism legislation and penal sanctions against individuals peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression", religion, or association, said Emmerson, who reports to the UN's Human Rights Council.

He urged Saudi Arabia to create an independent review mechanism to examine cases of people jailed for exercising such rights "and to commute or pardon all such prisoners with immediate effect".

Emmerson, a British lawyer, said he gave the government on Thursday morning a list of nine "priority cases" which a UN group in 2015 said had been arbitrarily detained for exercising their rights to free speech and peaceful association.

"I am profoundly concerned" that they remain in detention, he said.

The list includes Saudi blogger Raif Badawi and human rights lawyer Walid Abulkhair.

Emmerson said he sought to interview people detained for expressing non-violent views but "the government was unable to give access".

The independent expert expressed additional concern about persistent reports of "the use of torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement officials to extract confessions".

He said he had also received reports of secret trials, trials proceeding without lawyers, and other violations of due process at the Specialised Criminal Court which handles terrorism cases.

Saudi officials denied those and the torture allegations, Emmerson said.

Saudi Arabia is one of the world's most prolific users of the death penalty, including for people convicted of terrorism.

Emmerson said there appear to have been "multiple due process violations" in one death penalty case, "and there may well be others".

At the same time, he said standards of care at the kingdom's prisons for terrorist suspects "are amongst the highest in the world".

The kingdom can also be proud of its rehabilitation of terrorist suspects, added Emmerson, who also reviewed Saudi involvement in Yemen and Syria.

Saudi Arabia for more than two years has led a military coalition conducting air strikes in Yemen, where the government says it is battling "state-sponsored terrorists".

Emmerson raised the issue of civilian casualties caused by the coalition in Yemen.

A coalition team of military and legal experts, which it describes as independent, has issued findings on numerous incidents in Yemen.

But Emmerson reminded Saudi Arabia that it has an international legal obligation to conduct a probe "independent of the chain of command" in every case where civilians are reliably believed to have been killed or wounded.

He said every case must be investigated and "the true civilian death toll made public."

Emmerson also noted the kingdom has made a significant contribution to the United States-led coalition fighting Islamic State (IS) militants in Syria and Iraq.

Saudi Arabia has assigned warplanes to that coalition.

"However, I am concerned at allegations that some of the most violent armed groups involved in jihad which have committed serious human rights violations" in Syria "appear to have enjoyed various forms of support, financial and logistical, implicating sources inside Saudi Arabia", Emmerson said.

He did not elaborate on which Islamist militants he was referring to but said the allegations come despite Riyadh's stated commitment to stem terrorist violence.

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