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On the occasion of World Human Rights Day on December 10, ESOHR organized the first conference for victims of Saudi government violations. Several victims, their families, and those expressing their suffering spoke at the conference, along with international human rights lawyers. The conference was held remotely and moderated by journalist Zaher al-Shehri.
ESOHR’s Vice President, Adel al-Saeed, opened the conference by noting that human rights violations have become routine since King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed took power in Saudi Arabia, and thousands of victims and their families have no means of redress from criminal officials because the judiciary is subject to the Presidency of State Security. Al-Saeed explained that the goal of the conference was to discuss with international lawyers the cases of victims or their representatives, any available legal means, and their prospects for holding accountable Saudi Arabia or those responsible for the violations.
The conference was held in two sessions. Hassan al-Habib, the son of arbitrary detainee Sheikh Mohammed al-Habib, opened the first session by discussing his father’s case and the violations he suffered. Al-Habib indicated that the harassment of his father based on his positions began even before his arrest. He also explained that the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced him to twelve years in prison and a five-year travel ban after he was acquitted of the same charges. Al-Habib stressed that the family is searching at home and abroad for just remedies in the case.
The second participant was a South African citizen, Yumna Desai, who was teaching at the University of Hail in Saudi Arabia before her arbitrary arrest. Desai talked about the violations she suffered and how she and her brothers were denied their basic rights, stressing that her experiences are shared by hundreds of men and women arbitrary detainees in Saudi Arabia. Desai explained that the court sentenced her unjustly to three years in prison for a crime she did not commit, saying that Saudi Arabia arrests ambitious young women, mothers, and activists solely because they demand reforms. She stressed that, despite threats, she will continue to speak on behalf of the detainees who have no voice and about the violations and torture that are rife in Saudi political prisons.
Yemeni citizen Yahya Dirham spoke of his family tragedy caused by the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Dirham noted that a Saudi raid led to the destruction of his family’s home, injuring some family members and killing seven members of a neighboring family. Dirham said that Yemen and all the victims are demanding an investigation into these violations and accountability for the perpetrators and war criminals, especially Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He also asked whether anything would compensate the thousands of victims.
Alia al-Hathloul discussed the case of her detained sister, Loujain al-Hathloul, referring to the severe torture she experienced secretly at the hands of Saudi officials. Al-Hathloul confirmed that Loujain was arrested for her human and women’s rights advocacy in particular, noting that official agencies denied that she had been tortured without investigating the complaints. Alia explained that Saudi officials want to exhaust Loujain and silence anyone who speaks about what happened to her, but she said this will not happen, emphasizing that Loujain, and all the women detainees who have suffered a similar fate, are not alone.
After the victims’ remarks, Clémence Bectarte, from the litigation action group of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) spoke about access to justice in Europe for victims of violations. She also presented a joint project involving several organizations, which outlined the obstacles facing victims’ access to justice in Europe. Bectarte emphasized that working collectively and seriously helps victims access justice, gain redress from perpetrators, and reduce collateral damage in such cases, which cannot be ignored.
Anwar al-Bunni, lawyer, head of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies & Research, activist in the field of human rights, and the first person to file a case against a foreign officer accused of involvement in murder and torture (the case is now being considered before German courts), spoke about international litigation procedures and explained the difference between crimes and violations. Al-Bunni stated that there is a recent international legal trend to prosecute perpetrators outside their home countries. Al-Bunni stressed that this requires documentation, hard work, and a relentless pursuit by victims and human rights organizations working inside the country. Al-Bunni emphasized that reliance is not on governments and policy, but on independent judicial systems in Europe that may help achieve justice.
Dr. Hessa al-Maadi, a researcher from Saudi Arabia and a former member of ALQST, opened the second session of the conference. She spoke of the suffering of nearly a quarter of a million people in Saudi Arabia caused by the issue of deprivation of nationality, pointing out that both international and domestic laws oblige Saudi Arabia to grant individuals the right to a nationality. Nationality has been linked to many rights in the modern world. Despite this, their suffering continues, as they are denied basic rights in Saudi Arabia, such as the right to education, work, travel, and mobility. Dr. al-Maadi pointed out that the stateless in Saudi Arabia include several groups, such as the Bidoon and those born in Saudi Arabia, but the government handles the file passively and without concrete measures, thus exacerbating their tragedy and suffering.
Jordanian citizen Zainab Abu al-Khair spoke about the ordeal of her brother, Hussein Abu al-Khair, who was sentenced to death on drug-related charges in Saudi Arabia. She indicated that her brother was unjustly arrested, forced to sign confessions under torture, and deprived of his right to defend himself while still at risk of execution. Zainab noted that Hussein’s case has affected his entire family. She explained that she worked to raise the violations against him through diplomatic means, also sharing the information with human rights organizations and the UN. Nevertheless, the violations were not investigated, and Hussein still faces the risk of execution. His head may be cut off at any moment based on the final death sentence against him.
The third participant in the second session was Areej al-Sadhan who spoke about the enforced disappearance of her brother, Abdul Rahman al-Sadhan. Al-Sadhan stated that her brother, an aid worker, disappeared 33 months ago. He was kept from communicating with his family, and his whereabouts and the charges he faces were unknown. Despite his one communication with his family, his fate remains unknown. Al-Sadhan confirmed that her brother is a human rights advocate targeted because of his peaceful expression of his views on Twitter, where he criticized issues related to social justice and human rights violations. She emphasized that his disappearance and the uncertainty of his condition, or even if he is alive, exposes the family to all sorts of psychological torture.
The political activist and researcher, Amin al-Nimr, talked about the issue of Saudi Arabia’s detention of bodies, noting that international laws, as well as Islamic law, affirm the family’s right to bury their deceased. Despite this, Saudi Arabia detains the bodies of individuals that it intentionally executes. Al-Nimr stated that the government refused to hand over the body of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr despite the family’s demand for it after his execution was announced. The government is also holding at least 80 bodies demanded by several of their families, a practice that affects foreign workers. According to al-Nimr, retrieval of bodies is a right, and justice requires a trial of the primary perpetrators.
Soraya Bauwens, a lawyer who specializes in crime, international criminal law, and international human rights, spoke at the conference about the legal means available to victims. Bauwens indicated that there is now what is known as the global human rights sanctions regime, which are laws that governments put in place to punish, through travel bans or financial penalties, individuals or entities who violate human rights. The lawyer talked about the American Magnitsky Act that was passed after the death of a Russian lawyer under torture or due to negligence, in order to target those responsible. Ms. Bauwens noted that this law has become universal. She also explained that several countries now have similar laws to hold violators accountable, with the main violations being torture, enslavement, and the right to life.
Bauwens pointed out that, following Canada and a number of countries, the EU approved the Universal Human Rights Penal Code on 7 December 2020, to be applied later. She explained that this law demonstrates a political response to human rights violations and also facilitates the judicial response, as it is an easy access for victims. Despite the positive results of these recent steps, there are still, according to Bauwens, some obstacles to practical application guaranteeing victims’ rights, the most important of which is the political will to put individuals on the sanctions list.
James Suzano, Director of Legal Affairs at ESOHR, spoke about a new global trend in dealing with global jurisdiction. Despite uncertain results, the future for justice is bright. Suzano pointed out that the UN, its mechanisms, and its special procedures program are among the currently available means to defend victims. Although these means are insufficient, Suzano assured that they have helped protect many lives, citing the handling of several Saudi cases.
ESOHR’s Vice President, Adel Al-Saeed, concluded the conference, noting that the information presented shows that international mechanisms for legal redress have progressed in recent years compared to the past. There are opportunities, though no doubt they are still incomplete and non-comprehensive, with deficiencies and obstacles. Not all victims’ rights are guaranteed, nor all criminals held accountable, but there are multiple opportunities that give victims the potential to hold accountable criminal officials when the appropriate conditions are met.