Publication date: 01/06/2018

ALQST has observed a sharp increase in the practice of torture and other forms of ill-treatment in prisons and detention centres in Saudi Arabia. The recurrence of similar methods of torture across different prisons and detention centres strongly suggests that this increased use of torture is being methodically applied and that the torturers have a green light from the Saudi authorities.

Prisoner of conscience Dr Musa al-Qarni has been severely tortured and afterwards taken to hospital; his health has greatly and gravely deteriorated, as happened earlier with his colleague Dr Saud Mukhtar al-Hashimi.  Both men are being subjected to systematic torture of a kind that has increased markedly recently.  They are being held in bare isolation cells which are kept either extremely hot or else extremely cold; they are forced to stand on one leg or on a chair for hours on end; and sometimes they are deprived of sleep or food or essential medication, such as for diabetes or high blood pressure.  Dr Qarni’s health is currently in critical decline; there have been no confirmed reports on his condition since he was taken by ambulance to hospital, only official statements.  Dr Qarni and Dr Hashimi are members of the so-called “Jeddah Reformers” group, who were arrested by the authorities in 2007 and accused of forming an association with political ambitions.  The Public Prosecutor called for several of them to be executed on a charge of “attempting to change the ruling regime”; Hashimi was sentenced to 30 years in prison and Qarni to 15.

Article 1 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1984, defines “torture” to mean:

“any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.  It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

So torture is normally used for three reasons:

  • to extract confessions;
  • to coerce people to do things; or
  • for punishment and revenge.

Torture for the first reason, to extract confessions, has continued to occur in Saudi Arabia even in recent years.  Several judicial sentences, including death sentences, have been passed on individuals who told the courts that their confessions had been extracted under duress and torture, and yet the courts systematically went ahead with sentencing without listening to them.  ALQST has seen a number of court documents showing quite clearly that the accused testified to the court that their statements had been extracted under torture, but the court did not set up an independent enquiry into their claims.

Torture for the other two reasons, coercion and punishment/revenge, has started to decline, however.  The number of cases decreased gradually between 2008 and 2017, and it is no longer common for someone serving a prison sentence to be tortured in prison.  Torture has not completely gone away, though, and there is still scope for it to make a comeback in the absence of rigorous and just oversight mechanisms.

A major change for the worse occurred in the second half of 2017, with the passing of a number of decrees from King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.  Since then the situation has continued to deteriorate day by day, and systematic, methodical torture appears to be on the rise.

On July 20, 2017, King Salman issued Royal Order No. A/293 of 2017 establishing a body called the State Security Presidency and appointing former Mabaheth (intelligence) officer Abdulaziz al-Huwairini to head it.  Huwairini then ordered the appointment of Brigadier Mohammed Ali al-Asmari as director-general of prisons, effective November 2017.  Huwairini and Asmari, together with other Mabaheth officers, were known as torturers.  There had been a wave of complaints against the two of them after King Salman came to power and Mohammed bin Salman became Crown Prince, as many former torture victims turned to the new leadership hoping for justice, thinking times had changed.  But then Huwairini was appointed as head of the new state security agency, and Asmari – having previously worked as the Mabaheth director of recruitment in the Eastern Province, then director of the Mabaheth prison at al-Ha’ir, then head of a working party on Mabaheth prisons generally, then director of the Mabaheth prison in Jeddah – was given an exceptional promotion to the rank of brigadier and made director-general of prisons.  The fact that King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appointed two former members of the notorious Mabaheth whose names are widely associated with torture, at a time when they were receiving numerous complaints about them, does strongly indicate that the authorities are giving a green light to torture.  What in fact has happened is that we have seen a horrifying increase in torture in Saudi prisons.

Inside Saudi prisons, where inmates are already serving judicial prison sentences, prisoners are further punished by having to stand facing the walls for hours – up to eight hours a day in some prisons; some are asked to stand on chairs, or on one leg, or to keep pushing against the wall, or to march on the spot for hours on end.  If anyone stops doing his punishment, masked soldiers come in and beat him soundly with truncheons, electric prods and cables, sometimes in the isolation cells but sometimes also in communal cell blocks to spread fear among the other prisoners.

ALQST can also confirm that the princes and businessmen held in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh were subjected to torture during their incarceration, as was widely reported in the international press at the time.  ALQST did not endorse these reports as it had no firm evidence from witnesses at the time, but it has since been able to establish the truth of the allegations.  The purpose of the torture in that case was to coerce the victims to do certain things, namely to pay over some of their wealth to the Saudi Crown Prince and to announce in public their support for his decisions and actions.

ALQST therefore maintains that the Saudi authorities, particularly under the leadership of King Salman and Prince Mohammed bin Salman, are committing more and more abuses on a number of fronts, and that the true situation in the country is getting worse by the day.  There need to be fundamental legal safeguards put in place to prevent these abuses, as without the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, freedom of assembly and expression, and licence to form civil society institutions, the authorities will continue to renege on their legal obligations and brazenly continue to commit abuses, all the while keeping domestic voices eerily silent through fear, and trying to hoodwink the outside world.

Further information:

Saudi Arabia’s legal obligations

In breach of the Convention

Failure to maintain fundamental safeguards

A climate of impunity

Saudi Arabia’s legal obligations

Torture is a crime under international law.  It is absolutely prohibited and cannot be justified under any circumstances.  This prohibition is binding on every member of the international community, regardless of whether a state has ratified international treaties in which torture is expressly prohibited.

Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, states:

“No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Subsequent to the adoption of the Universal Declaration, a number of legally binding human rights treaties have been developed to supplement the basic principles.  Each one has an established committee of experts to monitor implementation of treaty provisions by States Parties.

The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1984.  Article 1 of the Convention defines “torture” to mean:

any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.  It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”  

States Parties to the Convention are obliged to take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture, and to ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law, punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account their grave nature.  Each State Party must keep under systematic review methods of interrogation and arrangements for the custody and treatment of anyone arrested, detained or imprisoned, with a view to preventing any cases of torture; and they must carry out a prompt, effective and impartial investigation wherever there is reason to believe an act of torture has been committed.  Its legal system must provide fundamental safeguards against torture and ill-treatment, and allow victims access to redress, compensation and rehabilitation.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia ratified the Convention in 1997 but made reservations to Article 20 and paragraph (1) of Article 30, as follows: “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not recognise the jurisdiction of the Committee as provided for in Article 20” of the Convention, which enables the Committee against Torture to make a confidential inquiry into information that appears to it to indicate that torture is being systematically practised in the territory of a State Party, while at all stages of the inquiry seeking the cooperation of the State Party concerned; and

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia shall not be bound by the provisions of paragraph (1) of Article 30” of the Convention, which allows for disputes on the interpretation or application of the Convention to be submitted to arbitration or to the International Court of Justice.

In addition, Saudi Arabia has not yet signed or ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2002, the objective of which is “to establish a system of regular visits undertaken by independent international and national bodies to places where people are deprived of their liberty, in order to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.  However, at the UN Committee against Torture’s 57th session, in April 2016 in Geneva, the Saudi delegation announced that the kingdom was considering ratification of the Optional Protocol and the lifting of its reservation to Article 20 of the Convention.

Saudi Arabia is also bound by the Arab Charter on Human Rights, adopted by the League of Arab States in 1994 and ratified by Saudi Arabia in 2009.  The Charter seeks to promote universal human rights in the Arab region, reaffirming principles of the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam.  With regard to torture, Article 8 states:

“No one shall be subjected to physical or psychological torture or to cruel, degrading, humiliating or inhuman treatment.  Each State Party shall protect every individual subject to its jurisdiction from such practices and shall take effective measures to prevent them. The commission of, or participation in, such acts shall be regarded as crimes punishable by law and not subject to any statute of limitations. Each State Party shall guarantee in its legal system redress for any victim of torture and the right to rehabilitation and compensation.”

Article 23 obliges State Parties to provide victims of such violations with effective remedy, regardless of whether the violation has been committed by “people acting in an official capacity”.

In breach of the Convention

Under international pressure, the Saudi authorities have introduced some legislative and administrative reforms of the kingdom’s judicial system, but many glaring shortcomings remain, and many of the safeguards written into its domestic laws are widely disregarded in practice.  When making its long overdue periodic report to the Committee against Torture in Geneva earlier this year, the kingdom avoided addressing several of the Committee’s outstanding concerns, and refused to answer many of its requests for data and detailed information.

In its report, Saudi Arabia stated that “torture is a criminal offence, punishable under the provisions of the Islamic Shariah, and the laws of the Kingdom forbid all forms of torture”.  However, Saudi legislation does not define the crime of torture in a manner consistent with Article 1 of the Convention, and the kingdom’s Basic Law has still not been amended as required to incorporate an absolute prohibition of torture.

ALQST has documentary evidence of a judge ordering a murder suspect to be tortured in December 2014.  When the case first came to court there was evidence against the defendant that the judge found strong but inconclusive, and the defendant, who had been confused and given inconsistent statements, persisted in contesting the charge laid against him.  The judge ordered the case to be re-investigated with torture being applied to the accused.  

Failure to maintain fundamental safeguards

In most countries there are basic procedures and protocols in place in the criminal justice system that help ensure that abuses do not and cannot occur, such as the right of detainees to legal counsel; the right to contact a family member or other person of their choice to inform them of their arrest and whereabouts; the right to be notified promptly of the reason for their detention and to receive assistance with language translation and interpretation; the right to confidential communication between lawyers and clients; the right to have prompt access to independent medical assistance; and the right to appear promptly before a judge with the power to order their release.

Although the 2013 Law of Criminal Procedure claims to afford all detainees with legal safeguards against torture, many of these rights are frequently neglected or denied, and persons arrested are not routinely informed of their rights.  Investigators may at their discretion bar accused persons from having contact with other prisoners or detainees, or being visited by anyone other than their lawyers or legal representatives, for up to sixty days.  Detainees can be held without charge for up to six months, and in practice are often held for much longer. There are particular concerns about the frequent violation of safeguards and lack of monitoring in the detention facilities of the Mabaheth, the Ministry of Interior’s General Investigation Directorate, where most of those held are kept in pre-trial detention for prolonged periods of time.

An important safeguard against torture and abuse is independent monitoring of detention centres and prisons.  All such facilities should be under judicial supervision and be subject to regular and unannounced visits by independent institutions.  In Saudi Arabia the body responsible for such monitoring is the Bureau of Investigation and Public Prosecution, which reports to the Ministry of Interior and thus has a clear conflict of interest.  The purportedly independent Human Rights Commission also has a role in prison visiting and monitoring, but it is likewise subject to the authority of government officials; its deputy president, H.E. Dr Nasser bin Rajeh al-Shahrani, headed the official Saudi delegation to the Committee against Torture session in Geneva.  It has recorded only one case of serious abuse, and there has been no information about the outcome of any investigation or follow-up.  The National Society for Human Rights, which the authorities describe as a civil society organisation, is financially supported by the Ministry of Social Affairs; it too is tasked with prison visiting and receiving complaints, but it is unclear what, if anything, it has achieved in this respect.

Furthermore, the detention facilities of the Mabaheth are outside any judicial control and have no formal monitoring arrangements at all.  

A climate of impunity

It is difficult to quantify the extent of torture in Saudi Arabia because victims are generally unwilling to discuss the violations they have suffered, due to a not unreasonable fear of reprisals against themselves or their families.  The mechanisms available for making complaints are ineffective because they do not ensure confidentiality, and complaints that are made rarely seem to be followed up.  There are no data on investigations resulting in the punishment of perpetrators of abuse.  

Civil society could play a valuable role in preventing the possibility of acts of torture by monitoring the conditions and treatment of detainees and prisoners; the authorities have publicly acknowledged this by allowing the creation of the Human Rights Commission and the National Society for Human Rights.  However, as discussed above, these two bodies lack independence, effectiveness and credibility.  No other human rights organisations are allowed to operate, as the ministry concerned refuses to license them, and the authorities have systematically harassed, arrested and imprisoned dozens of civil society activists for peacefully speaking out against abuse.

Monitoring of prisons and detention centres, as described above, is weak to non-existent.  The judiciary itself lacks independence, being heavily influenced by the Ministries of Justice and Interior, and the king having absolute control over the appointment and dismissal of judges.  Defendants’ claims in court that their confessions were extracted under torture are routinely dismissed, yet sentences up to and including the death penalty are passed in reliance on these confessions without the allegations being investigated.  As a result, those who perpetrate acts of torture and abuse almost always go unpunished, and the victims receive no redress or compensation.

All of these factors contribute to the climate of impunity surrounding torture in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  

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