Repression continues to devour Saudi citizens, even government allies, as Crown Prince entrenches his authority
(Washington D.C., February 27, 2023) – The Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) in Riyadh, used to prosecute "terrorism" cases in Saudi Arabia, has charged six former prominent SCC judges and four former judges of the High Court, the country's supreme court, with "high treason" – a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia – in its first secret hearing of the case on February 16, 2023, said Democracy for the Arab Now (DAWN).
Sources told DAWN that the government has denied the defendants legal counsel and held them incommunicado since their detention on April 11, 2022.
"The shocking charges leveled against these judges, many of whom have issued egregiously abusive sentences against Saudi citizens at the behest of the Crown Prince, demonstrates that no one is safe in Saudi Arabia," said Abdullah Alaoudh, Gulf Director at DAWN. "The prosecution of these judges is emblematic of the Crown Prince's wider purges within the country and his attempts to make the judiciary subservient solely to his wishes."
The Saudi State Security Agency arrested the judges on April 11, 2022. Those arrested include six judges from the SCC – Abdullah bin Khaled al-Luhaidan, Abdulaziz bin Medawi al-Jaber, Jundub al-Muferrih, Abdulaziz bin Fahad al-Dawood, Talal al-Humaidan, Fahad al-Sughayyer – and four judges from the High Court – Khalid bin Awaidh al-Qahtani, Nasser bin Saud al-Harbi, Muhammed al-Omari, and Muhammed bin Musfir al-Ghamdi. DAWN previously exposed the direct role of two of these SCC judges, Abdullah bin Khaled al-Luhaidan and Abdulaziz bin Medawi al-Jaber in human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. Al-Luhaidan convicted prominent women's rights defender Loujain Alhathloul on baseless terrorism charges in December 2020, while al-Jaber sentenced a minor and many others to death, including many of those executed in the mass execution of 81 people in March 2022.
The arrests and prosecution of these judges bear striking resemblance to previous purges of perceived rivals of MBS, and their charges appear to be politically motivated, with no credible evidence presented against the accused, according to a source with knowledge of the trial. According to a source with knowledge of the trial and who said he reviewed the court documents presented against the defendants, officials from the State Security Circuit of the Public Prosecution Office charged the SCC judges after they signed confessions stating they had been too "lenient" in the State Security cases they presided over during their tenures as SCC judges.
According to the same source, the court documents cite these confessions as evidence for the charges and identify as examples of "leniency" the sentences the judges gave in cases involving the prosecutions of human rights defenders, peaceful dissidents, and women's rights activists. Among the other charges against them is "complacency toward state security criminals," the source explained, although it is not clear that this charge is a cognizable offense in Saudi law, or would meet the requirements of international law if it were one. The same source informed DAWN that the judge presiding over the trial of these 10 judges is Awad al-Ahmari, also previously investigated by DAWN for his abuses; he was appointed to head the SCC by a royal decree on June 9, 2022.
After arresting these judges, MBS replaced them on June 20 with his loyalists, who have proceeded to review a number of trials of political activists and twitter commentators and dramatically increase their sentences. For example, the SCC now headed by these newly appointed judges overturned shorter sentences issued by lower courts against two Saudi women, Salma al-Shehab and Nourah al-Qahtani, from eight and 13 years, to 34 and 45 years in prison, respectively, for their use of social media.
The detention and trial of the judges also appear to lack basic due process protections. In an interview with DAWN on February 23, 2023, the source who witnessed the trial familiar with the arrests said that state security officials held the judges incommunicado, denying them access to their families and lawyers throughout their ten-month pre-trial detention period. The same source attended the trial itself, informing DAWN that the government did not allow the defendants to have legal counsel to represent them, and that one of the judges was recently transferred to an intensive care unit due to serious health complications.
DAWN has urged accountability for Saudi judges violating human, legal, and political rights and their roles in enabling state repression against Saudi human rights defenders, civil society leaders, and democracy activists. Though several of the judges recently charged with high treason have previously committed such abuses, DAWN condemns their apparently arbitrary arrests and the lack of due process exhibited in their trial. At a minimum, the Saudi government should provide the defendants with access to counsel and family visits. But because the Saudi prosecutors have no prosecutorial independence whatsoever and the SCC's record shows it is not a fair and impartial court, the government immediately should release the men.
"Nothing protects a Saudi citizen's basic rights to life and freedom, not even blindly obeying the Crown Prince's dictates or carrying out his dirty work by sentencing his critics to lengthy prison terms," said Alaoudh. "By prosecuting these judges, MBS is sending a message to every judge in the country that they have to be as brutal as possible to avoid the fate of their victims."
Repression within Saudi Arabia continues to accelerate at a dramatic pace. Saudi authorities should immediately release the 10 judges and provide them with access to legal counsel. DAWN calls on the U.S. to cease its political and military support to the Saudi government in light of its systematic and widespread rights abuses, to avoid further contributing to and enabling such abuses.