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May 23, 2019

Report: Saudi Arabia's Counterterror Court Targets Activists

Executive Summary

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s repressive tactics have received widespread attention due to the recent execution of 37 detainees, the detention of nearly a dozen women’s rights activists and the killing of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi last year. Many of these activists have been charged with terrorism offenses and face prosecution in the Saudi Specialized Criminal Court, following a longstanding pattern of misusing counterterrorism resources to stifle dissent.  In addition to wasting resources on frivolous cases, there is a growing body of evidence that Saudi counterterrorism authorities have failed to effectively investigate and prosecute terrorism financing emanating from the Kingdom.  Long-term stability in the Kingdom will depend upon systemic reforms ensuring that Saudi authorities fully investigate terrorism networks in the Kingdom and permit human rights advocacy aimed at resolving legitimate grievances through peaceful means.

In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, authorities created the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) in 2008 to prosecute terrorism detainees, thousands of whom had been languishing in detention without charge since being rounded up in the wake of terrorist attacks inside the Kingdom, claimed by al-Qaeda, in 2003. [1] However, the Court’s caseload was quickly expanded from alleged violent extremists to include political dissidents, religious minorities and human rights activists.[2] 

In 2014, the Court was provided express jurisdiction through adoption of the Penal Law for Terrorism and Its Financing (the anti-terror decree), in apparent response to concerns in the United States and elsewhere that Saudi Arabia was not seriously investigating financing of terrorist groups.[3]  Bizarrely, the first defendant convicted under the new law by the SCC was a Saudi human rights lawyer, Waleed abu al-Khair, after whose case the SCC soon convicted another three lawyers, in apparent retaliation for their human rights activities, including representing defendants before the SCC and tweeting about fair trial concerns in Saudi Arabia.[4]  Despite Saudi Arabia’s attempts to improve the 2014 anti-terror decree, a new decree adopted in October 2017, also failed to codify terrorism offenses in a manner consistent with international standards.

The American Bar Association Center for Human Rights (Center) has interviewed individuals familiar with proceedings in the SCC and reviewed judgments, public reports, press statements, and other materials concerning the court.  It has concluded that the SCC routinely convicts individuals of terrorism charges without any meaningful evidence.  Notwithstanding the fact that some defendants were accused of serious violent crimes, credible witnesses, victims, or physical evidence were not produced in the cases reviewed by the Center.  Indeed, in several judgments reviewed, Shia protestors were given the death sentence solely on the basis of confessions alleged to have been produced through torture.

While this report focuses on the prosecution of protestors and human rights advocates by the court, the high number of alleged Sunni extremists convicted by the court in a relatively short amount of time raises questions about whether the court is basing its judgments on individualized evidence of guilt. Long-standing concerns about the quality of the counterterrorism investigations underpinning these prosecutions were confirmed by a recent report of the Financial Action Task Force, a multilateral body that monitors implementation of counter terror finance and anti-money laundering efforts.  In 2018, the Task Force found that Saudi authorities had “not yet tackled” the issue of third party financing of terrorist activities. [5]

Concerns regarding the quality of Saudi counterterror investigations and prosecutions compromise the Saudi government’s ability to secure public support for its counterterrorism efforts.  It is necessary not only for Saudi authorities to collect general intelligence about alleged terrorists but also to exhaustively collect credible evidence of individualized guilt and present it publicly in court.  Only through a public accounting of such evidence will Saudi citizens and the international community have confidence that those convicted were in fact those responsible, not mere scapegoats. 

It is therefore essential that Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism partners engage with Saudi authorities to re-focus efforts on the prosecution of violent extremists in a manner consistent with the due process of law.  The anti-terror decrees should be revised to conform with international standards and the court should only prosecute terrorist suspects, not human rights defenders.  All previous death sentences should be suspended, all allegations of torture investigated and all detainees convicted merely for participating in protests or engaging in dissent should be released.  Saudi Arabia’s membership in the Financial Action Task Force should be conditioned upon implementation of these recommendations.

Read Full Report here

[1] Lori Plotkin Boghardt, From ISIS to Activists: New Security Trials in Saudi Arabia, Washington Institute for Near East Policy (2016), also Saudi Arabia: Abolish Terrorism Court, Human Rights Watch, (2012), (“The Specialized Criminal Court was established in 2008 by the Supreme Judicial Council to try thousands of terrorism suspects, many of whom had languished in the kingdom’s domestic intelligence jails for years without charge, trial, or prospect of release.”).

[2] Seee.g., Human Rights Watch, supra note 2 (discussing several cases of human rights activists charged and tried in the SCC as of 2012).

[3] Madawi al-Rasheed, Saudi Arabia New Terror Law Not Enough, Al-Monitor, February 2014, (“The deterioration of the situation in both Syria and Iraq raised many questions over Saudi involvement, and Riyadh remains accused of sponsoring radical groups and undermining diplomatic efforts. In an attempt to change this image, judge and Consultative Council member Issa al-Ghaith explained that the royal decree sends a clear message to the West that Saudi Arabia is serious about fighting terrorism.”)(emphasis added).

[4] Waleed abu al-Khair, Abdulrahman al-Subaihi, Bandar al-Nogithan, and Abdulrahman al-Rumaih were all tried and convicted by the SCC in relation to public statements regarding human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, among other human rights activities.  See The Specialized Criminal Court: How the Saudi Government Targets Human Rights Defenders Americans United for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, (2015),

[5] Anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing measures, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: Mutual Evaluation Report, FATF-MENA (2018), 85.