Rights group says peaceful protests could be branded as terrorism under planned law
Amnesty International described the state of freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia as dire on Thursday, saying a proposed anti-terror law would make matters worse by reinforcing "draconian and abusive" measures in the world's biggest oil exporter.
Saudi Arabia has been spared the popular uprisings seen elsewhere in the region this year, but not without launching a new wave of repression in the name of security, the rights group said in a report released on Thursday.
Amnesty said the draft anti-terror law, a copy of which was leaked to the group earlier this year, indicated peaceful acts of dissent could in future be prosecuted as a "terrorist crime".
"The formulation of a new anti-terror law is another apparent sign of the authorities' to use the law to silence dissent," said Amnesty, adding the law would allow the kingdom to detain security suspects indefinitely and without trial.
Amnesty criticised the kingdom's "vague and broad" definitions of terrorism, ranging from "destabilising society" to "harming the reputation of the state".
"This opaqueness could be exploited to charge peaceful meetings of a group of people who make political demands or even engage in academic discussions with a "terrorist crime" under this draft law.
Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, has no written criminal code, which is instead based on an uncodified form of Islamic Sharia law as interpreted by the country's judges.
Calling on Saudi authorities to immediately release all prisoners of conscience, Amnesty denounced as "extremely weak" the kingdom's institutional framework for protection of human rights.
Detainees are sometimes held for months without trial or access to a lawyer, Amnesty said, with confessions extracted under duress: from beatings with sticks, suspension from the ceiling by the ankles or wrists and sleep deprivation.
Amnesty said when cases were brought to trial, the proceedings were often held behind closed doors and failed to meet international standards of fairness and transparency.
Earlier this year, an unknown group of Saudi activists urged people to take to the streets to demand the release of political prisoners, a fully independent judiciary, a minimum wage and greater freedom of expression.
That was met with a statement from the country's interior ministry, reminding citizens demonstrations were banned and it would take "all necessary measures" against those seeking to "disrupt order".
Only one person, 40-year-old teacher Khaled al-Johani, defied the warning and was quickly arrested. He is still in detention, according to Amnesty.
The group also mentioned protests by Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite Muslim minority in the oil-rich Eastern Province, but said it did not have enough details to conclude whether security forces had used excessive force in response to what appeared to be violent acts on the part of some demonstrators.