Saudi authorities have resumed their "relentless crackdown" on critics and human rights activists after the end of its G20 presidency, Amnesty International said in a blistering report today, calling on the UN Human Rights Council to establish a monitoring and reporting mechanism on the human rights situation in the kingdom.
Titled Saudi Arabia's post-G20 crackdown on expression, the report documents how since Riyadh handed over the G20 presidency in December, prosecution and sentencing of dissidents in "grossly unfair trial" has increased. After an 85 per cent fall in recorded executions in 2020, when the kingdom held the presidency of global summit, death sentences and crackdowns returned to business as usual. At least 40 people were said to have been put to death between January and July 2021 – more than during the whole of 2020.
"As soon as the G20 spotlight on Saudi Arabia faded the authorities resumed their ruthless pursuit of people who dare to express their opinions freely or criticize the government," said Lynn Maalouf, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International. "In one case, the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced a humanitarian worker to an outrageous 20 years in prison for a simple tweet in which he expressed criticism of economic policies."
The Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) was created in 2008 to try suspects of terrorism. But in recent years the court has become notorious for rubber stamping a crackdown against critics and human rights activists. Saudi Arabia, like its key allies in the region, Egypt and UAE, has been accused of weaponising the definition of terrorism, especially since the popular Arab uprising in 2011, to include opponents and democracy campaigners.
The role of the SCC as well as that of other courts were highlighted in detail by the Amnesty report which documented the cases of 64 individuals prosecuted for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. Thirty-nine are currently imprisoned, while the others were recently conditionally released after serving their sentences or are awaiting trial on charges related to their human rights work.
In the majority of cases, the SCC handed down its sentences following grossly unfair trials, the report said, adding that they were marred by incommunicado detention and solitary confinement for months at a time, no access to legal representation during the detention, interrogation and throughout the trial, as well as the court's unquestioning reliance on "confessions" extracted through torture – in many cases leading to a death sentence on the basis of such "confessions".
Arguing that the G20 presidency served as a propaganda coup for Riyadh Amnesty said: "The brief respite in repression coinciding with Saudi Arabia's hosting of the G20 summit last November indicates that any illusion of reform was simply a PR drive."
The rights group insists that the kingdom's pledge to reform allowing greater freedoms should be taken with a pinch of salt. "The reality of these trials stands in stark contrast to recent announcements by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of legal reforms," said Amnesty pointing to remarks made in February 2021 by the crown prince that Saudi Arabia would be adopting new laws and reforming existing ones in order to "preserve rights, bolster the principles of justice, enforce transparency, protect human rights and achieve comprehensive and sustainable development."
However, despite this pledge, Amnesty said that to date, authorities have yet to publish these laws or their implementing regulations, making it difficult to assess the human rights impact of the stated reforms.
Furthermore, at the same time as the authorities were announcing these reforms, the judiciary resumed its pursuit of people who voiced critical opinions or scrutiny of governmental policies.