Saudi Arabia has been found to be using a secret court established for the purpose of judging counter-terrorism cases to imprison and detain critics and dissidents within the country.
In a report released today, the UK-based human rights organisation Amnesty International discovered that the Specialised Criminal Court has been holding numerous secret proceedings in which trials were identified as "a mockery of justice" with the judges being "willing accomplices" in the suppression of any citizen who spoke up or criticised the government and its actions.
Reportedly set up in 2008 to pass judgements on terrorism cases, the court began holding trials for critics of the authorities in 2011 backed up by the justification of vague and broadly-worded counter-terrorism laws. Such laws allegedly criminalise insulting King Salman and his son Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
Some of the charges cited by Amnesty in the court cases included "disobeying the ruler" of the kingdom, "questioning the integrity" of those in official positions, "seeking to disrupt security and inciting disorder by calling for demonstrations" and "disseminating false information to foreign groups".
This last charge is reportedly one of the most common among them, and even the action of speaking to a human rights group or publishing content on social media are offences under that charge. Among those detained and charged have been activists, peaceful critics, journalists, scholars and members of the country's Shia minority.
When the court was first established it dealt only with Al-Qaeda and terror suspects, but in mid-2011 – the same year that the Arab Spring protests spread across the region – 16 figures who called for reform were then brought to the court and tried, changing its entire process.
The human rights group documented cases in which 95 people were tried at the court between 2011 and 2019, out of which 68 Shias were reportedly prosecuted for their involvement in protests and another 27 detainees were prosecuted over their political activism. "In all cases," Amnesty reported, "the trials were grossly unfair," allegedly using confessions acquired under the use of torture. Of the detainees who were tried, at least 17 of them – Shias – were found to have been sentenced to death and executed
While the Saudi Human Rights Commission asserted that all of the trials were held in the same manner and standard as other court trials – such as being public and subject to a fair trial – Amnesty has insisted that the cases were dealt with secretly and in an unfair manner, based on testimonies it received from those previously subject to the court.
Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa Regional Director Heba Morayef said that the findings contradict "the shiny new reformist image Saudi Arabia is trying to cultivate," accusing the kingdom of attempting "to create a false aura of legality around its abuse of the counter-terror law to silence its critics."
This revelation by Amnesty comes amid significant social reforms being carried out by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, enforced as part of the "modernisation" of the kingdom and the opening up of the country to foreign investment and tourists visiting for purposes other than pilgrimage and religious reasons.