By Christoph Wilcke, Researcher, Middle East and North Africa Division
Published in Guardian Unlimited
April 25, 2008
Returning from a visit to Saudi Arabia, Foreign Secretary David Miliband describes in his blog his experience of a Saudi programme to turn terrorism suspects off violence. Miliband clearly thinks it is a good thing. But his account is incomplete in one important way: the programme is hardly voluntary, and the estimated 1,500-2,000 detainees being re-educated have been detained often for over three years without charge or trial or other legal process.
The inmates, the lawyers and the blogger (but not the Hamid brothers, sent to regular prison by a regular court) are all in separate prisons run by the domestic Saudi intelligence service, where lawyers have yet to tread to guarantee their clients' legal rights. The intelligence service prisoners range from peaceful regime critics to those suspected of material involvement in the Iraq insurgency or domestic terrorism.
Many have languished there for three years or more, without access to lawyers, legal procedures, or trial. They routinely spend the first four to six months in incommunicado detention. Just last month, Saudi Arabia moved some of these suspects hundreds of kilometres from Hofuf and Medina to one of five newly built intelligence prisons north of Jeddah, with only solitary confinement cells. They are no longer able to receive what had, at least, been fairly regular family visits, albeit within earshot of an intelligence officer.
Human Rights Watch has spoken with the families of some detainees who claim they were arrested by mistake, usually by alleging that the intelligence misconstrued an innocent contact with a wanted terrorism suspect as evidence of being a committed co-conspirator. Only an open and fair trial based on legal charges would allow the truth to prevail.
We also spoke to recently released former detainees who criticised the re-education programme as an involuntary initiative. Without recourse to the law and courts, they said, successful participation in the programme became a necessary, but insufficient criterion for release. Necessary, because only successful participation could lead to release; insufficient, because even success did not guarantee release, as happened in many instances. In November 2007, the Saudi authorities announced the release en masse of 1,500 supposedly successfully reeducated terrorism suspects.
In a report on the Saudi justice system launched in London last month, Human Rights Watch found that violations of defendants' fundamental rights in Saudi Arabia are so systemic that it is hard to reconcile the existing criminal justice system with basic principles of fairness, the rule of law and international human rights standards. HRW has discussed the report with FCO officials. Miliband would have done well to read the report before endorsing the arbitrary detention of hundreds, if not thousands, in Saudi intelligence prisons.