On 30 April 2017, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, Ben Emmerson, arrived in Saudi Arabia for a five-day visit—he left today, 4 May. During his visit, he sought “to provide assistance in the implementation of the country’s 2014 Penal Law for Terrorism and its Financing, with a view to ensuring that measures taken by the Government are in compliance with international human rights standards.” This law, also known as the anti-terror law, has been increasingly used by the Saudi government to target and prosecute human rights defenders and activists.

While Saudi Arabia’s anti-terror law came into force on 1 February 2014, it codifies many of the practices that the kingdom has used prior to 2014 to jail peaceful dissidents and activists. The law is largely based on a 2011 draft and includes a definition of terrorism similar to that outlined in the 2011 draft of the law. The 2011 draft law defined terrorism broadly so as to limit Saudis’ rights to speech, assembly, and association. The draft law also restricted due process and fair trial rights and granted police the power to act without judicial oversight. The 2014 anti-terror law incorporates these issues, by defining terrorism as any act that may, directly or indirectly, disturb the public order or security of the state or insult the reputation of the state in addition to calling for atheistic thought and seeking to shake the social fabric of the state or nation. This definition is extraordinarily broad and authorities have interpreted it to target human rights defenders, and prosecute activists and dissidents.

While international human rights law recognizes the importance of countering terrorism, international human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) also provide restrictions on the lengths states can go to suppress fundamental human rights. However, Saudi Arabia’s anti-terror law sharply restricts core human rights and freedoms in the name of fighting terrorism beyond the frameworks set forth in the ICCPR and ICESCR. Under the kingdom’s anti-terror legislation, for example, authorities have arbitrarily detained, tortured, and sentenced activists and dissidents to death and long prison terms.

While the anti-terror law itself is rather recent, it codifies many of the kingdom’s practices concerning critics and activists. Among the activists and dissidents arrested and prosecuted under the auspices of countering terror are human rights defenders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), Monitor for Human Rights, and the Adala Center for Human Rights. The government prosecuted many of the members for crimes related to establishing and participating in unlicensed organizations and harming the image of the state, both of which fall under the purview of the anti-terror law. The state is able to prosecute civil society members for participating in an unlicensed organization because restrictions on registering organizations make it almost impossible to legally found and participate in a human rights organization. The charge of harming the image of the state stems largely from their dissemination of human rights principles and advocacy for respect for fundamental human rights.

In addition to targeting civil society organizations, the Saudi authorities have targeted individuals under the anti-terror law because their of human rights activities or due to their expression of opinions that officials allege offend the state. For example, on 17 April 2014, Saudi officials prosecuted human rights activist Fadhil al-Manasif for “sowing discord” and “inciting public opinion against the state,” among other charges. On 5 January 2017, Saudi authorities summoned and later detained human rights defender Ahmed Mushaikhass and on 8 January 2017 detained human rights defender Essam Koshak. While officials did not give a reason for their detention, their detention is thought to be due to their human rights activities and posts on Twitter, which would follow a pattern of prosecution under the anti-terror law.

Saudi Arabia’s use of its anti-terror legislation goes beyond acceptable international limits of targeting terrorists. Rather, the government also uses its counter-terror legislation to prosecute peaceful civil society activists and human rights defenders for alleged crimes such as “inciting public opinion against the state,” and establishing an unlicensed organization. The Rapporteur’s visit to Saudi Arabia is an opportunity to expose these practices and call for their repeal. Saudi Arabia should work with the Rapporteur to re-evaluate its counter-terror practices and amend its legislation accordingly so as to protect civil society and peaceful human rights activists.