International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

Saudi Arabia’s New Terrorism Law

Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

Pictured: Kind Abdullah, Saudi Arabia

Human rights activists were shocked this week when Saudi Arabia put into effect a new terrorism law that enables the government to prosecute “anyone who demands reform, exposes corruption or otherwise engages in dissent.” Activists also say that merely “exposing corruption” could be seen as a violation of the anti-terrorism law.

The new law gives “broad powers,” which grant police the ability to raid homes and track internet activity on any suspicion of anti-government activity.  Security services are able to investigate these “suspicious cases” and need no prior approval from a judge or superior to do so.  Additionally, suspects can also be held incommunicado for 90 days and it is not necessary for lawyers to be present during the initial interrogation.  A UN special reporter on torture stated: “Torture is most frequently practiced during incommunicado detention.”

The new law defines terrorism as any criminal act that “destabilizes the society’s security or the state’s stability or exposes its national unity to harm.” Some terrorist acts include “disabling the ruling system” or “offending the nation’s reputation.”

Activists say the new law is a new attempt to keep the Al Saud family in control of the country. Saudi Arabia is one of the last countries in the world to have an absolute monarchy.  Every decision is made by King Abdullah, with no parliament to give input. The government has felt pressure from the country since the Arab Spring protests and there have been greater demands for democratic reform int he country.

In 2011, the government attempted to implement a similar law, but it was sidelined after human rights groups leaked a copy of the document online.  Since the incident, many activists have been detained and several rights groups have been shut down.  The Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights was one of the groups shut down and one of the founders, Al-Shubaily, is facing trial: 

“‘If I call for the release of someone from jail for being held longer than their sentence, I can be tried for ‘asking the state to take action,’” Mr Al-Shubaily said.  “When I call for a constitutional monarchy, I can now be charged with terrorism. They characterise you as a terrorist because you ask the kingdom to do something it does not want to do.’” 

Not only may this new law affect those within Saudi Arabia, but also international journalists and organizations abroad which “scrutinize Saudi Arabia’s human rights record could be targeted for prosecution in the kingdom,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Is this a circumstance in which the ICC should or might intervene? (Although Saudi Arabia is not currently signed onto the Rome Statute). The new law cannot be equated with mass murder cases, but is it worth an ICC investigation? Activists have expressed worry about the new law, especially due to its broad definitions, enabling the government to prosecute virtually anyone under it.



4 responses to “Saudi Arabia’s New Terrorism Law

  1. coreyinjuno February 10, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    I am not quite sure that Saudi Arabia’s case falls within the ICC’s jurisdiction or fits the type of situation that ICC tends to investigate. I feel that its in the best interests of the ICC to take cases that are more ‘on the front lines of acts against humanity’ and have various states support of the ICC’s involvement.
    In addition to not fitting the profile that a typical ICC case has, Saudie Arabia’s issue is still at a point where it can be seen as a state matter, not yet needing international involvement. Granted though, this new law passed by Saudie Arabia could lead to potential acts of violence and crimes against humanity, but predicting potential issues isn’t what the ICC’s job is. The ICC’s role is to seek justice for crimes against humanity, not to prevent them entirely. I don’t think that any state parties would have signed onto the Rome Statute if that what the ICC’s job was.
    If the ICC were to look into or investigate this issue in Saudi Arabia it could potentially raise concerns about the court infringing upon state’s rights. Also, the scrutiny that would follow could pose a threat to the court’s stability and legitimacy.

  2. jhgmitch February 11, 2014 at 2:50 am

    This blogpost also points to an entirely different question–that of militarily strategic allies who violate human rights.

    Some human rights activists have advocated for the United States to more vocally criticize its strategic allies such as Saudi Arabia for human rights abuses. My past criticism of this advocacy has often rested on a shaky but still appealing argument, which I will crudely call the “this isn’t a f***ing game” argument.

    The argument goes something like this: A state of war exists between al-Qaeda and likeminded organizations and the United States/ the West. American lives (which, like it or not, are more ‘valuable’ than non-American lives) are at stake. In a war, it is not just appropriate but is in fact imperative to forge strategic alliances whether or not those allies are otherwise repellent (e.g. Soviet Union during WWII). The ICC, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, etc have a noble cause but it’s difficult for wartime leadership to care about this theoretical debate, war being an ‘existential’ matter rather than an ideological one. A government that cannot stomach difficult partnerships is not a government that can robustly defend its citizens, soldiers, and national interest.

    The Arab Spring has raised a lot of related questions: Is self-determination a more compelling ‘human right’ than equal treatment of women or freedom of religion? Does moderate Islamism, as is often argued, curb radical Islamist groups, or does it invigorate/empower them? Do mainstream Islamist governments fight terrorism as vigorously as western-allied secular military states and absolute monarchies? The confusion and embarrassing lack of decisiveness with which the United States has responded to these questions was painfully apparent with the Syria about-face. The current dilemma is what to do after the coup in Egypt.

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