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Saudi Arabia should immediately make public the legal basis for detaining hundreds of people, and reveal what steps it is taking to end the practice of arbitrary detention, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef Al Sa`ud.
One person held arbitrarily is Fadi Musallam, 27, a Jordanian mathematics professor arrested in March 2014 but not charged. Saudi authorities should immediately release Musallam, or charge him if they have evidence he committed a recognizable crime, Human Rights Watch said.
“King Abdullah has poured millions of dollars into reforming the justice system, but if a detainee can be held for months on end with no charges, it’s clear that the system remains broken and unjust,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should either charge or release these detainees and call a halt to arbitrary detentions.”
In early 2013, the Interior Ministry created a website called Nafetha Tawasul )Communication Window), a regularly updated online database that purports to list cases of detainees in Saudi prisons, without identifying them, and the status of their cases. Human Rights Watch analyzed data from the portal as it appeared on May 15, 2014, when it showed that 2,766 people were in detention. They included 293 people apparently held in pre-trial detention for over six months without the cases being referred to the judiciary, including 16 people apparently held for over two years, one of them for over 10 years.
Musallam began working at King Sa`ud University in Riyadh in September 2013. He told a family member by phone from prison that he was arrested on March 7, 2014, during a visit to the Haram Mosque in Mecca, following a brief altercation that began when a police officer told him he could not take pictures inside the mosque.
Police took him to a local police station, the family member told Human Rights Watch, where authorities held him overnight, then moved him to Dhahban Prison, outside Jeddah, where he remained for 59 days without being allowed to contact his family members or see a lawyer. He later told family members that authorities only began allowing him one 10-minute phone call a week to Jordan after he went on a hunger strike.
The family member told Human Rights Watch that authorities have not released any information regarding his case, and that Musallam’s only meeting with officials was the day after he was detained, when members of the Mabahith, the intelligence service, questioned him about the incident for about a half-hour. Though Musallam has been in detention without charge over 190 days, the family member said that Jordanian officials told the family that they have received no information about the case from the Saudi government.
The Interior Ministry website currently says that Musallam’s case is “in the process of completing procedures to refer to the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution to enforce directives in the case,” meaning that the case file has not yet been delivered to prosecutors.
Article 114 of Saudi Arabia’s Law of Criminal Procedure (LCP) provides that a person may be held in detention without charge for a maximum of five days, renewable up to a total of six months by an order from the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution. After six months, article 114 requires that a detainee “be directly transferred to the competent court, or be released.”
Yet the data on the website as of May 15 revealed that 31 people listed had been held while merely “under investigation” for more than six months.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has determined that detention is arbitrary when the detaining authority fails to observe, wholly or in part, the norms related to the right to due process, including for a prompt hearing before a judge following the initial detention. Principle 11 of the UN Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment states that a detainee must be “given an effective opportunity to be heard promptly by a judicial or other authority,” and that a judicial or other authority should be empowered to review the decision to continue detention.
The Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia ratified in 2009, also guarantees the right of anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge to be brought promptly before a judge or other officer of the law, and to have a trial within a reasonable time or be released. The charter says that “Pre-trial detention shall in no case be the general rule.”
Extended detention without charge or trial or without an appearance before a judge is arbitrary, and violates both Saudi law and international human rights standards.
“The authorities have held Musallam for months, but they won’t say why they are holding him and haven’t accused him of any crime,” Whitson said. “If there is no evidence of criminal behavior, the Saudi authorities should immediately release him and compensate him for the nightmare they have put him through.”