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UN accuses Saudi Arabia of using terror laws to suppress free speech

UN accuses Saudi Arabia of using terror laws to suppress free speech

UNITED NATIONS: Saudi Arabia must stop using counter-terrorism legislation against people peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, a UN human rights expert said on Friday.

The Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, said Saudi laws on terrorism do not comply with international standards. He urged an end to the prosecution of people including human rights defenders, writers and bloggers simply for expressing non-violent views.

“Despite many positive developments, I am concerned about the unacceptably broad definition of terrorism and the use of Saudi Arabia’s 2014 counter-terrorism law and other national security provisions against human rights defenders, writers, bloggers, journalists and other peaceful critics,” Emmerson said in a statement marking the end of a five-day mission to the country.

“There are continuing problems relating to the prevention of torture of terrorist suspects during investigation, the reported use of confessions obtained under duress, and the use of the death penalty in proceedings which are said to fall short of proper legal process,” emphasised Mr Emmerson.

“Any definition of terrorism should be confined to acts or threats of violence that are committed for religious, political or ideological motives, and which are aimed at putting members of the public in fear, or at coercing a government or international organisation.

“Contrary to international human rights standards, the current law enables the criminalisation of a wide spectrum of acts of peaceful expression, which are viewed by the authorities as endangering national unity or undermining the reputation or position of the state,” said Mr Emmerson.

The UN expert said he had received numerous reports of prosecutions under the 2014 law but that the Government had been unable to provide access to any of the individuals he had asked to interview.

Emerson noted that the country had suffered extremely high numbers of terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda, IS and other groups, with more than 3,000 people killed or injured in attacks since 1987.

He commended government efforts to alleviate the suffering of victims and to counter the spread of violent extremism. He was also impressed by the standard of care for those held in five dedicated prisons for terrorist suspects and convicts.

Emmerson called for a new independent mechanism to re-examine all cases where people had been jailed for exercising their rights of free speech, thought, conscience, religion or opinion, and of peaceful assembly or association. The government should commute the sentences or pardon all such prisoners immediately, he added. “I have handed the government a list of priority cases for urgent review. In each of these cases it appears the individuals are serving sentences for non-violent speech or writing,” said Emmerson.

He called for reforms including the guaranteed presence of lawyers and extra training for law-enforcement officials.

Allegations made to the Special Rapporteur included arbitrary arrests, violation of the right to be informed of the charge, violation of the right to legal counsel, the absence of independent medical examinations, the practice of incommunicado or secret detention and the admission of evidence obtained by torture.

Published in Dawn, May 6th, 2017

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