Rights group criticises Saudi anti-terror law

Amnesty International says that proposed legislation threatens to strangle peaceful dissent in the Gulf kingdom.

    The legislation would allow authorities to imprison for 10 years anybody who questions the integrity of the king [AFP]

    A proposed Saudi anti-terrorism law threatens to strangle peaceful dissent in the kingdom, a leading human rights organisation says, calling on King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz to reconsider the changes.

    Under the Draft Penal Law for Terrorism Crimes and Financing Terrorism, the authorities could detain people "potentially indefinitely" without charge or trial, Amnesty International said on Friday, adding it had obtained a leaked copy of the law.

    The legislation would also give the authorities power to imprison for at least 10 years anybody who questions the integrity of the king or Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz, it said in a statement.

    Mahjoob Zweiri, a professor of Middle East history at Qatar University, told Al Jazeera that this was not a new law.

    "It was started about five or six years ago and there was a discussion about the law in general, more focused on the threats from al-Qaeda," he said.

    "But this is now focused on current events within Saudi Arabia and is maybe coming to limit any kinds of movements to criticise the authorities."

    Peaceful protests

    Amnesty, which is based in London, warned the proposed anti-terrorism law "would strangle peaceful protest".

    "This draft law poses a serious threat to freedom of expression in the kingdom in the name of preventing terrorism," Philip Luther, Amnesty's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, was quoted as saying.

    "If passed, it would pave the way for even the smallest acts of peaceful dissent to be branded terrorism and risk massive human rights violations."

    Amnesty said a Saudi government security committee had reviewed the draft law in June but that it was "unknown when or if it might be passed".

    It warned the "definition of 'terrorist crimes' in the draft is so broad that it lends itself to wide interpretation and abuse, and would in effect criminalise legitimate dissent".

    "Terrorist crimes would include such actions as 'endangering national unity', 'halting the basic law or some of its articles', or 'harming the reputation of the state or its position'," said Amnesty.

    Under the draft law, which went against the Gulf state's international legal obligations including the UN Convention against Torture, violations would carry "harsh punishments," it added.

    "The death penalty would be applied to cases of taking up arms against the state or for any 'terrorist crimes' that result in death."

    Death penalty

    Saudi Arabia has beheaded 33 people so far this year, according to the AFP news agency, based on official and human rights group reports.

    Earlier this month, Amnesty called on Riyadh to stop applying the death penalty, saying there had been a significant rise in the number of executions in previous weeks.

    Amnesty said on Friday that under the draft law, "terror suspects" could be taken into custody arbitrarily and be held "in incommunicado detention for up to 120 days, or for longer periods - potentially indefinitely".

    "At a time when people throughout the Middle East and North Africa have been exercising their legitimate right to express dissent and call for change, Saudi Arabian authorities have been seeking to squash this right for its citizens," said Luther.

    "King Abdullah must reconsider this law and ensure that his people's legitimate right to freedom of expression is not curtailed in the name of fighting terrorism."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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