Saudi justice condemned

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Amnesty International yesterday published a damning report on the Saudi justice system. Steve Crawshaw reads some tough accusations regarding Saudi Arabia's `appalling human rights record'.

Amnesty International's report Behind Closed Doors argues: "Even the most basic right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty does not exist. The justice system is blatantly unfair from start to finish - from the time someone is arrested to the end of their trial." In its 30-page report, the human rights organisation noted that the unfairness of trials was "doubly severe" because the individuals - women and poor, especially foreign workers - are also victims of discrimination. In contrast to the two British nurses tried for murder, Deborah Parry and Lucille McLauchlan, many prisoners do not even have access to defence lawyers. Prisoners are taken for execution without even realising that they have been sentenced.

Amnesty notes that its requests for interviews with Saudi authorities regarding the perceived problems have gone unanswered. It says the lack of judicial supervision "has enabled the security forces to make torture an institutionalised practice simply because they can get away with it".

Saudi Arabia has expanded its use of the death penalty in recent years. As Amnesty points out, this is made easier by the "summary and secretive nature of trials". It argues that the Saudi justice system caters primarily for the "might of the state" at the expense of the rights of the individual".

This basic failure has, says Amnesty been a key factor in the "gross human rights violations" in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi ambassador to London has argued, in the context of the British nurses' trial, that the Saudi system has built-in guarantees that "no harsh sentence is passed lightly", because of the three hierarchical layers of the court system. But the appeal process takes place in complete secrecy, in the absence of the accused or any lawyer. Amnesty says many prisoners felt obliged to accept the sentence, even if they felt they were innocent, because they did not want to stay in prison, or feared a more severe punishment.

Amnesty says that hundreds are held by the political security police without trial, mainly on political or religious grounds. Those who are held cannot challenge the grounds for their detention. Torture is routinely used, especially in order to gain information leading to the arrest of other suspects.