Saudi Arabia: Mass death sentences in ‘spy trial’ a travesty of justice

The condemning of 15 people to death by the Specialized Criminal Court today after a grossly unfair trial is a travesty of justice and a serious violation of human rights, said Amnesty International. 
The men were among 32 people arrested across Saudi Arabia in 2013 and 2014 who were accused of spying for Iran. Fifteen others were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six months to 25 years and two were acquitted.
The men were charged with a series of offences including “high treason” with some facing several other ludicrous charges which should not be considered criminal offences such as “supporting protests”, “spreading the Shi’a faith” and “possessing banned books and videos”. 
“Sentencing 15 people to death after a farcical trial which flouted basic fair trial standards is a slap in the face for justice. Time and again, Saudi Arabia’s justice system has been proven to be incapable of ensuring fairness and justice,” said Samah Hadid, Deputy Director for Campaigns at Amnesty International’s Beirut regional office.
“The death penalty is cruel, inhuman and degrading in any circumstances but it is even more shocking when people are sentenced to death after blatantly unfair trials. These death sentences must be immediately quashed and the accused must either be re-tried in line with international standards without resorting to the death penalty, or released.” 
Those convicted were all Saudi Arabian nationals except for one Iranian national who was sentenced to four years in prison. An Afghan national was one of the two men acquitted.
According to Taha al-Hajji, one of the lawyers who represented most of the accused, all 32 men arrested were detained without an arrest warrant and held for almost three months in incommunicado detention where they were repeatedly interrogated without a lawyer, heightening the risk that they could face torture and other ill-treatment. In many cases they only discovered the reason for their arrest during their interrogations.
Some told the court that they were threatened with solitary confinement and that they would be banned from having any contact with their families if they did not sign “confession” documents. They said they were told that if they refused to sign these “confessions” that their families would be imprisoned and locked in cells next to them.
After almost three years in detention without charge or trial the defendants were suddenly brought before the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh –
Saudi Arabia’s secretive security and counter-terrorism court in February 2016. Most of them attended their first session without any lawyers and the rest met their lawyers briefly for the first time in court. Some of the defendants had to prepare their defence themselves.
“The entire legal proceedings in this case have made a mockery of justice. The fact that the men were held incommunicado for three months, denied access to a lawyer during the interrogations, and that the court failed to adequately investigate the men’s claims that they were coerced to ‘confess’ makes this little more than a sham trial,” said Samah Hadid.
While the General Prosecutor had almost three years to build the case against the 32 defendants, their lawyers were given less than a month to prepare their defence after the first hearing and were denied crucial information to enable them to prepare a proper case.
The lawyers complained saying they needed more time since it was a very complex case with 32 defendants involved, however, the request was ignored by the judge. They were initially denied access to court documents and key evidence relied upon for the convictions, including the forced “confessions” of the men.
During the first session in February 2016, the 32 defendants were handed a list of charges that was nearly 100 pages long. Most of the defendants were accused of offences such as “high treason” for either setting up or joining a spy cell or meeting with Iranian intelligence and sharing military and security information with them.
However, some of the other charges listed against the men are not recognizably criminal offences under international standards. These include “supporting protests”, “spreading the Shi’a faith” for example by setting up a Shi’a centre in Mecca, “possessing banned books and videos”, “inciting the public to break allegiance to the ruler and harm his reputation and the reputation of the royal family” among other charges.
One defendant, who is among those sentenced to death, even faced charges for possessing articles written by Mikhlif al-Shammari a prominent human rights defender and advocate for Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a Muslim community who was sentenced to prison and 200 lashes for his activism.
It is not the first time a Saudi Arabian court has issued death sentences after an unfair mass trial. On 1 June 2016, 14 Shi’a Muslim men were sentenced to death by the Specialized Criminal Court after a trial which relied on “confessions” extracted through torture for a series of offences including among other things, taking part in violent protests in the Eastern Provinces in 2012.
Trials before the Specialized Criminal Court are shrouded in secrecy. Given the opaque procedures at these courts, in some cases simply being brought to trial appears to be enough grounds for judges to find the accused guilty.
In a letter submitted to the Specialized Criminal Court at the second session several of the lawyers said they would boycott the trial in protest the manner in which the trial was being conducted including the fact that they were not allowed to visit their clients, view evidence and prepare their defence adequately. The lawyers also objected to the “media war” waged against the defendants. The Saudi Arabian authorities do not allow any critical or independent media to operate in the Kingdom.
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