GENEVA (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia is misusing its broad anti-terrorism law to silence peaceful dissent and deny freedom of expression, imprisoning critics and allegedly subjecting some of them to torture, according to a United Nations report.
The report by Ben Emmerson, who visited the kingdom last year as U.N. special rapporteur on counter-terrorism, said the definition of terrorism in laws enacted in 2014 was “objectionably broad”.
He called on Saudi authorities to bring the law in line with international norms, to halt “barbaric and public” executions, and to investigate allegations of the torture of detainees.
There was no immediate response from Saudi officials to the report, issued on Emmerson’s Twitter account on Wednesday, which covered his visit in April-May 2017. A spokesperson for the U.N. Human Rights Council said Emmerson submitted it to the U.N. after his six-year term as rapporteur ended later that year.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is trying to diversify Saudi Arabia, the biggest Arab economy, away from oil and open up the deeply conservative Muslim country by easing strict social rules and promoting entertainment.
He has won praise for his modernisation efforts. But an anti-corruption purge last year, when scores of royals and top businessmen were detained, and a recent crackdown on women’s rights campaigners have raised doubts among Western allies about the reforms.
International human rights groups have long urged the kingdom to improve its treatment of human rights advocates and end the death penalty.
Prince Mohammed said in an interview with Time magazine earlier this year that Saudi Arabia tried to minimize the use of capital punishment. In a few areas, penalties could be changed to life in prison instead of executions, he said.
Emmerson noted that Saudi Arabia had “suffered numerous terrorist acts” and had a duty to protect its citizens. But he said he had received “well-documented reports” of torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement officials against individuals accused of terrorism, as well as the use of coerced confessions.
He also said that Saudi authorities had widened their use of the anti-terrorism law since his visit.
International rights watchdogs have reported the detention of at least 11 activists in the past few weeks, mostly women who previously campaigned for the right to drive and an end to the kingdom’s male guardianship system, which requires women to obtain the consent of a male relative for major decisions.
State news agency SPA reported on Saturday that Saudi Arabia has temporarily released eight people accused of communicating with organizations opposed to the kingdom but is detaining nine others.
Emmerson said Saudi Arabia had carried out 154 executions in 2016 by public beheading and firing squad after trials that did not uphold due process. He questioned whether Saudi Arabia should be among the 47 members of the U.N. Human Rights Council.