Human rights experts at the United Nations have published an urgent appeal they sent to Saudi Arabia on 27 May 2019 – and the Saudi government’s response – concerning the risk of execution of medical doctor Abbas Alabbad as a result of unfair trial and discrimination based on his religion. Dr Alabbad is a member of the country’s Shia Muslim minority.

The Saudi authorities’ 15-page reply cited dozens of paragraphs of Saudi legislation but sidestepped most of the key questions, including allegations that Dr Alabbad was coerced into signing false confessions that were later used to convict him. 

The appeal was sent by UN Special Procedures – the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief; and the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. They said the information they had was sufficiently reliable for the matter to require immediate attention. 

ALQST welcomes Special Procedures’ decision to alert the international community to Dr Alabbad’s case. According to their information, Dr Alabbad was arrested by Saudi security forces in Riyadh on 17 March 2013, reportedly without a warrant, part of a wave of arrests involving 31 other individuals including several members of the Shia community. They were accused of spying for Iran, charged with a number of offences including high treason, and eventually brought to trial in 2016.

Dr Alabbad was held incommunicado for the first three months of his detention and repeatedly interrogated without a lawyer present. He was threatened with violence and forced to sign false confessions. 

In December 2016 he and 14 others were sentenced to death by the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC), the Saudi court that handles terrorism cases. The decision was upheld on appeal, but in February 2018 it was quashed by the Supreme Court, which sent the case back to the SCC. 

The SCC held a new hearing in early April 2019, in which the prosecution again called for the death penalty. On 23 April 2019, 11 of those initially convicted with Dr Alabbad were executed, as well as 26 other men. This fuelled fears that Dr Alabbad, reportedly still being held in Al-Ha’ir Prison in Riyadh, was at risk of imminent execution too.

In their response on 24 June 2019 to the allegations put to them by Special Procedures, the Saudi authorities said Dr Alabbad’s case “remains pending and similar criminal proceedings will be conducted”. Nowhere did they acknowledge that the proceedings were taking place in the Specialised Criminal Court. They also ignored a direct question as to whether any investigation had been conducted in response to the alleged ill-treatment of Dr Alabbad.

Special Procedures emphasised to the Saudi government that the imposition of a death sentence after a trial in which due process and fair trial standards have not been respected constitutes an arbitrary killing for which the State is responsible.

ALQST endorses UN Special Procedures’ appeal to the Saudi authorities to review Dr Alabbad’s and all current death penalty cases to ensure that international minimum standards are met in each case, and to immediately establish a moratorium on all executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty. 

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