Saudi Arabia has put into effect a sweeping counter-terrorism law that human rights activists say allows the kingdom to prosecute as a terrorist anyone who demands reform, exposes corruption or otherwise engages in dissent.
The law states that any act that “undermines” the state or society, including calls for regime change in Saudi Arabia, can be tried as an act of terrorism. It also grants security services broad powers to raid homes and track phone calls and internet activity.
Human rights activists were alarmed by the law, and said it was clearly aimed at keeping the kingdom’s ruling Al Saud family firmly in control. Demands for democratic reform have grown louder since the Arab Spring protests that shook the Middle East and North Africa region in 2011 and toppled long-time autocrats.
Abdulaziz Al-Shubaily , a Saudi activist, described the law as a “catastrophe”. Adam Coogle, of Human Rights Watch, added: “The new law is draconian in spirit and letter, and there is every reason to fear that the authorities will easily and eagerly use it against peaceful dissidents.”
The measure was approved on 16 December and was published in its entirety for the first time on Friday, in the government’s official gazette, Umm Al-Qura.
In defence of the law, the Saudi Minister of Culture and Information, Abdel Aziz Khoja, was quoted in December as saying that the legislation strikes a balance between prevention of crimes and protection of human rights, according to Islamic law.
Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s last absolute monarchies. All decisions are centred in the hands of 89-year-old King Abdullah. There is no parliament. There is little written law and judges – implementing the country’s strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam – have broad leeway to impose verdicts and sentences. An attempt to pass a similar counter-terrorism law in 2011 was shelved after rights groups in Saudi Arabia and abroad leaked a copy online. Since then, dozens of activists have been detained and a prominent rights group was shut down.
The new law defines terrorism as any criminal act that “destabilises the society’s security or the state’s stability or exposes its national unity to harm”. It also states that terrorist acts include “disabling the ruling system” or “offending the nation’s reputation”.
Activists said that simply exposing corruption could be seen as a violation of the law. Some also warned that Saudi women who get behind the wheel of a car in violation of the ban on female drivers could be tried under the new legislation. Other worrying aspects, activists said, include an article that says police can raid homes and offices on suspicion of anti-government activity without prior approval from a judge or even a superior. Suspects can also be held incommunicado for 90 days, and lawyers are not required to be present during the initial interrogation.
Mr Al-Shubaily is among 12 activists who founded the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights. The group was shut down, eight of its founding members were imprisoned, and he is facing trial. “If I call for the release of someone from jail for being held longer than their sentence, I can be tried for ‘asking the state to take action,’” Mr Al-Shubaily said. “When I call for a constitutional monarchy, I can now be charged with terrorism. They characterise you as a terrorist because you ask the kingdom to do something it does not want to do.”