In an interview conducted on July 27, 2020 with Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a prominent Saudi judge explained that the Prosecutor Office in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has covered up the “organized killing” of journalist Jamal Khashoggi through trials that looked like a “joke.”
The judge, who spoke to DAWN on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, discussed a wide range of issues: the reach of the State-security Specialized Criminal Court, the level of distrust between the political leadership and the judiciary, the possibility of future female judges, the lack of independence of judges and the judiciary, and the widespread corruption throughout the Kingdom’s justice system and the lack of any real change, contrary to what some in the government have touted recently. If any changes have been made, they have been purely cosmetic and lack any substantive weight, he explained.
Not only is the justice system not based on justice or merit, according to the judge, but also, the judicial system is a system of blackmail that is entirely at the behest of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the orders of the royal family.
Excerpts from the interview follow.
What do you think of the way that the Public Prosecution dealt with the detention of prominent citizens at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on charges of so-called “corruption”?
The detainees in the Ritz-Carlton corruption cases were treated terribly, and there was no accountability. The royal order stipulated that the Attorney General be answerable to the Crown Prince, in a stupid and disastrous decision that unveils the vision of the tyrannical officials who work at the Office of the Prosecutor. The officials in question use their iron fist as they please, under the umbrella of the long-lived monarch.
What about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi?
The Khashoggi case cannot even be purified by the waters of Zamzam. (The Zamzam Well, a well located in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, is said to have water that can purify and heal its drinkers. The well is a popular destination for pilgrims performing Hajj.) As we have seen, it was a vile group that killed Khashoggi as the world watched, and their reward was a scanty joke of a trial. It is a shame that shows how the Prosecutor’s Office is trying to cover up for the dangerous criminals who are the real perpetrators.
This is not a personal case for which the ruling would be an eye-for-an-eye type of sentence. Rather, it is an organized crime committed by people who infiltrated the security apparatus, and I do not know of a worse travesty. The killing of Khashoggi is similar to that of the imprisonment of political prisoners such as Salman Alodah, Awad Al-Qarni, or Ali Al-Omari; they have all been sentenced on false charges.
Recently, the Saudi judiciary has undergone a number of changes. Are these changes real? How do they affect the Saudi judiciary?
I beg to differ with your description and question. Honestly, there were no changes made in the judiciary recently.
The changes that we, as judges, now see were introduced during the reign of King Abdullah, namely, the enactment of the judicial system in 2007. If you look at the Saudi judicial system, you will see that only basic transformations in the judiciary have taken place in the past. Firstly, the establishment of an appeal system as a second level of litigation, and this was not codified this way before. Secondly, the creation of various specialized courts, which is a long-awaited demand. Also, the previous judiciary figures were changed. At the Ministry of Justice, Abdullah Al-Sheikh, who served as minister of justice until 2009, was replaced. Saleh al-Luhaidan, who served a chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Council until 2009, was also replaced. If you monitored the situation prior to their appointment, you will find that they have put in place stable traditions of the judiciary that are difficult to disagree with. Even before them, in the time of Sheikh Al-Harkan, former minister of justice, Sheikh Abdullah Ibn Hamid and Sheikh Ibn Jabir, former justice officials, the system was never modernized, nor did it evolve.
The justice system and the judiciary did not have any budget, support, or desire for reform. They were replaced by Muhammad Al-Issa, minister of justice until 2015, and Saleh bin Humaid, former member of the Consultative Assembly. After a few months, the scene was completely dominated by Minister of Justice and Chairman of the Council, Muhammad Al-Issa, endowed with over $1.8 billion dedicated to the development of the judiciary.
In my opinion, he was never successful. Therefore, many judges see that his only concern was to report feigned justice in the name of King Abdullah. As I have heard, Al-Issa may have compiled large material for a book on “The Judicial Achievements in the Reign of King Abdullah” but it was never published despite it being printed. The book was withheld. Al-Essa was discharged of his duties in the Ministry and the Council and his project ended up in the corridors of the justice system. At the financial level, King Abdullah’s era was a good time for all civil servants. It was then that I, along with my colleagues, were, promoted to the Appeals Court. Overtime pays and assignment per diems were always paid, albeit with some delays. Overall the financial situation was rewarding even though the judges were looking for more.
Is there trust between the political leadership and the judicial leadership in the Kingdom?
There is no trust. Perhaps there was before, but it is now gone. Saudi policymakers have never accepted the entry into force of judicial committees that can indict banks, media and other actors. They still cast doubt on judicial power than might threaten their own interests, and do not want judicial independence to develop further. The position of the head of the Judicial Council has long been filled by appointment. The objective and moral evolution of the judiciary is going from bad to worse. They are making of it a community service similar to traffic or municipal services. My generation of judges used to meet with King Fahd and with Sheikh Ibn Baz, Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia until 1999, on a regular basis. The judges were active participants and gave inside insight into the reality of their work. Now, the royal family and the people in real power have severed their ties with people like me.
After allowing female lawyers to work in the Kingdom, how do you see the possibility of future female judges? And how would the Kingdom’s judges view such a move?
Women can attain personal, and perhaps civil, status positions, but the work of the judiciary is tiring and hard on the femininity of Saudi women, who were raised in a society that respects and wants them to carry out the duties of such a job. In my view, women’s experience in legal practice has, so far, been unsuccessful, and I do not think that the overwhelming majority of Saudis would accept women accessing the judiciary. They would see it as inappropriate for women, especially since they have not yet held ministerial, military, or regional positions nor a crown prince’s, or princess’s position, among others.
Is the Saudi judiciary independent?
I will say it to you clearly and bitterly: the independence of the Saudi judge is a lie.
As a judge, I raise these questions: Why is the choice of judges made only from religious and Sharia jurisprudence colleges and in total disregard to legal specializations? Are the religious schools more subservient and more docile before politicians?
Why aren’t any judges promoted to any level without vetting by the head of the State Security service? Isn’t that blackmail? Even if it may be acceptable at the initial appointment, why is it repeated with every promotion? There are dozens of judges who have been denied a promotion because of the security screening. Unfortunately, rumors and denunciations in this process may kill your chances.
In the published Saudi judiciary regulations, judges can be held accountable and disciplined by either reprimand or discharge. Why did the Minister of Justice and his team add disciplinary transfers and bonus denials? These measures have become a form of apparent blackmail to compel judges to do what the Ministry wants.
I swear, we suffer from sacrificing ourselves: chairing courts, committees meetings, studying files, and our last reward was exclusion, even accusation and charges of treason. Every new official must bring with him his new team!
What are the specific events that you think affected the independence of the judiciary in Saudi Arabia and your independence as a judge?
Years ago, all Supreme Court justices were removed from office, including the president and the appointment of new judges. This was an awful move that affected the highest court in the country, tarnishing the reputation of the independence of the judiciary and, in fact, worsening its already bad reputation.
Also in the largest assault on the independence of the judiciary, a group of about ten judges were imprisoned for several months under the guidance of the Royal Court, without providing any immunity for them. They were humiliated by this imprisonment and detention, including His Excellency the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Justice and the Minister’s advisor and appeal judges. They were released and they all returned to work after it became clear that the decision to imprison them was a mistake, but it was a clear message to all judges that they are on call at any moment and have no dignity or immunity. It is the biggest tragedy affecting the independence of the judiciary in my view since the inception of the Saudi state.
Two judges did not stand up at a ceremony during the royal salute. They were taken to prison and humiliated for several months, before the Crown Prince again allowed them to return to work and released them without trial and no appreciation for their caliber as if they were servants in the court of His Highness. This was a catastrophe. So we all within the judiciary were scared. We are deeply suspicious of all the royal court’s dealings with the judiciary.
At various times, officials and district princes interfere in directing a specific case.
Several royal orders were issued to prohibit judges from any media – or even social media- presence, qualifying this as a crime. This denotes an apparent insult to them and their freedom of expression. They fear to repeat of the letter of the 200 judges, who, several years ago, wrote a letter to the King demanding judiciary reform. These judges are now probably in the thousands!
The ruler exercises his absolute powers to pardon punishments unconditionally, and his cronies use this to bail out their relatives who are involved in cases. Judicial rulings have no value.
Also, there is no clear and explicit civil law in the reasoning of rulings, and this negatively affects the independence of the Judiciary and its safeguarding from the whims of a corrupt judge or one acting as instructed.
The Minister of Justice, a member of the Council of Ministers, heads the Judicial Council, which is a fundamental flaw that the Saudi government has been unable to fix for several years and which destroys the independence of the Judiciary from the top-down.
Announcements of arresting judges who accept bribes and threaten the rest with the possibility of discrediting them in similar cases, puts great pressure on judges and compels them to give in to the whims of the Royal Court officials. In fact, it has by nothing to do with the war on corruption and bribery, but rather represents a stick to threaten judges with, and to fabricate charges against them as there is no independent, credible, or secure entity to monitor and follow up on allegations.
State-security Specialized Criminal Court (the terrorism court) that handles security and political cases has always been controversial. How do you see its work now, and how do other court judges view the judges of this Specialized Criminal Court?
It’s one of the worst courts. Because of the publicity of its cases and its slow pace publishing rulings. Entering State Security Presidential building is easier than obtaining these court records.
The court specialized in terrorism cases is surrounded by secrecy, and the victim is led with their arms crossed, implying a terror system disapproved of by God, his Messenger, and the believers. This court is an administration to intimidate and frighten people. Dozens of innocent people have been victims of it.
What are the causes of these problems and the bad reputation of State-security Specialized Criminal court?
The Specialized Criminal Court for Terrorism Cases worsens the bad situation of the Judiciary and the judges, and we, all judges, are smeared with the same bad pollutants because of the following: appointing judges who face disciplinary cases documented in their files in the Judicial Council and whose reputations are tarnished to facilitate their blackmail. This is a funny and famous thing that any judge there could tell you!
The court specialized in terrorism cases is not listed as an option in the annual judge transfer form like other courts. Rather, its judges are selected in a process that is damaging to the independence of the judges, and this is also another form of blackmailing the judges.
Its judges enjoy financial rewards under an out-of-office clause or repeated assignments. So you will notice that whoever works there does not want to leave. Sometimes they are given huge bonuses, as some judges tell me.
Its rulings are the worst and most daring, aimed at frightening, even if the charges are baseless by simply dubbing them with the vague description of terrorism. Therefore, you will find that the grounds for its rulings are weak, as many colleagues tell me.
What do you think of the work of the current Public Prosecution and the Attorney General?
I will tell you very clearly: the work is poor and driven by Twitter hashtags, and influenced by the Crown Prince’s inner circle. There have been interferences that did not occur in the history of the Saudi Public Prosecution’s work. The position of the Attorney General in its present form is no more than a figurehead.
Police offices that log crimes for the first time are more honest and closer to reality than the Prosecutor’s Office, but the latter, under the direction of those who control it, always interferes to change everything in its favor and threatens those who do not follow its wishes.
Some believe that the Attorney General is now more independent than in the past when his office was directly linked to the Ministry of the Interior, would you agree?
I used to think that at first, but it turned out to be talk for global media consumption, and if they had placed the Attorney General under the Minister of Justice, nothing would have changed. There is never independence. Those who follow this know that the Attorney General is receiving immediate directives from the Royal Court and is acting as instructed, and that Attorney General Saud Al-Maojab is a mere figure because the Prosecution’s oversight never concerns the transgressions of Advisor Turki Al-Sheikh, for example. And you cannot hold him accountable, nor the rest of the cronies of the long-lived Crown Prince.
*This interview was conducted on July 27, 2020 by DAWN*