Saudi Arabia is using its counterterrorism laws to silence activists in violation of international law guaranteeing freedom of speech, United Nations human rights experts said.
A panel event titled “Saudi Arabia – Time for Accountability” was held on Monday on the sidelines of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Counterterrorism laws and other regulations are “unacceptably wide and unacceptably vague”, said Fionnuala Ni Aolain, UN special rapporteur on protecting human rights while countering “terrorism”.
“These laws are used to directly attack and limit the rights of prominent human rights defenders, religious figures, writers, journalists, academics, civil activists and all of these groups have been targeted by this law,” Ni Aolain said.
Michel Forst, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said he has been in touch with Riyadh for the past year since its “crackdown“.
“Worrisome for me is the targeting of women human rights defenders,” he said. “All arrests involved incommunicado detention at undisclosed locations.”
‘Heeding’ international standards
Abdulaziz MO Alwasil, Saudi ambassador to the UN in Geneva, told the Human Rights Council last Friday: “The kingdom heeds in its measures all international and national standards related to human rights.”
At Monday’s panel, Saudi and other campaigners called on the kingdom to release human rights defenders being unjustly held.
“Some are leaders of famous campaigns like the right to drive and abolishing male guardianship. These attacks are designed to mute their voices and dismantle the movements in the country,” said Zaynab al-Khawaja of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights.
Issuing her group’s report on alleged torture in Saudi Arabia, she said: “We highlight some of the torture methods that are being used in Saudi Arabia – electrocution, flogging, sometimes whipping, on the thighs, for example, sexual assault where some women human rights defenders have been stripped, have been groped, have been photographed naked, some while handcuffed, and others while blindfolded.”
Omaima al-Najjar, a Saudi blogger living in exile since fleeing the kingdom, voiced concern for at least 18 women she said had been charged.
“It is important to remember that while so many women for example now can drive, women who campaigned for driving are still in prison. I’m concerned that those women if there is no international pressure, will end up spending the rest of their lives in prison, if not executed,” said Najjar.
Arsalan Iftikhar, a human rights lawyer, said the reason Saudi authorities are targeting citizens is that they’re challenging the status quo.
“The irony is they’re going to use these counterterrorism laws to selectively prosecute people like women’s rights activists, religious minorities and journalists. It’s important to keep in mind at a time when Saudi Arabia is supposed to be moving towards transparency and reform they’re actually regressing,” he told Al Jazeera.
Iftikhar noted the moves mimic what happened in the US after the September 11 attacks in 2001.
“The counterterrorism measures being employed by the Saudi kingdom are similar to ones employed by the United States after 9/11 against Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities,” he said.
“For a so-called Muslim-majority country to use these same sorts of draconian measures to imprison and convict in kangaroo courts people who challenge the conventional wisdom of the status quo, the irony is pretty astounding.”