ADHRB at HRC36 Event Summary – Saudi Arabia: The Context of the Paramilitary Operations in Awamiyah and Ongoing Executions

This morning at the United Nations offices in Geneva, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain hosted a panel on “The Context of the Paramilitary Operations in Awamiyah and Ongoing Executions” as a side event to the 36th session of the UN Human Rights Council. The panelists discussed the ongoing state violence in the town of Awamiyah and the long-term pattern of unlawful executions in the Kingdom, which have lately reached a new crescendo.

ADHRB’s Saudi advocacy advocate Tyler Pry, who moderated the event, opening by identifying the parameters of the discussion and introducing the panelists: Alex MacDonald, a journalist with Middle East Eye; Harriet McCulloch, Deputy Director of the UK anti-death penalty organization Reprieve; Amin Nemer, an exiled Saudi activist who submitted a video presentation for the event; and Adil Alsaeed, an activist with the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights.

Alex McDonald opened the discussion by noting that Awamiyah has been a site of dissent in Saudi Arabia since Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, an influential Shia cleric who was a native of the town, was executed in 2016. Then in early 2017 the government in Riyadh announced a “renovation” plan for the Musawwarah neighborhood of Awamiyah which, McDonald noted, soon became an eviction operation as power was cut in the targeted neighborhood and residents were forced to leave their homes without compensation. Since May, these evictions have turned into a wholesale paramilitary operation in which dozens have died, infrastructure has been destroyed, and thousands have been displaced. McDonald recounted reports from the ground describing Saudi security forces shooting at anything that moves and attacking people carrying white flags. Though Canada has launched an investigation into the use of its equipment in the demolition of Musawwarah, McDonald noted, in the UK a similar initiative has been stonewalled as the government continues to supply weapons to Riyadh in enormous quantities. In the broader political context, Saudi Arabia’s actions in Awamiyah are a reflection of its sectarian anti-Shia policies, which have inflamed regional tensions and its own Eastern Province.

The video presentation by Amin Nemer followed, with the exiled activist providing a description of the siege on the town that began in early May. He described how local citizens have spontaneously formed self-help organizations to provide municipal services cut off by the government, such as trash disposal, firefighting, and clearing of rubbish from the streets. Nemer reports that at least one such self-help activist, a volunteer trash collector, has been shot in the street while performing this community service. He observed that Awamiyah has been a center of political protest in Saudi Arabia since the suppressed Arab Spring uprising in the country in 2011, emphasizing that local activists have been resolutely peaceful and have attempted to meet the Saudi government’s repression with constructive civil disobedience. He added that a number of individuals from the town are now facing death sentences for these activities.

Tyler Pry commented that the death sentences imposed on these Awamiyah locals provided a useful segueway to the panel’s second topic, the widespread and unlawful use of the death penalty throughout Saudi Arabia.

Adil Alsaeed took up this issue by recalling that dozens have been executed or are currently facing death sentences in the country based on convictions in sham trials with no legal due process. As of 25 April 2016, he reported that his organization had information on 47 people on death row. Those sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia can be killed abruptly, with no advance warning to the defendant, family, or attorneys. Many of those executed have been political activists or respected civil-society figures, like Awamiyah’s own Sheikh al-Nimr, and some have been killed for alleged crimes committed as legal minors. The European Saudi Organization for Human Rights has documented multiple cases in which victims were detained with no summons or warrant and then tortured into giving “confessions” which served as evidence for imposition of the death penalty. Defendants are frequently denied the elementary right to choose and be represented by an attorney during proceedings in Saudi courts. Though Saudi Arabia claims that it records all interrogations, access to this evidence (if it exists) is not granted to defendants. Proceedings are one-sided, serving simply to railroad undefended victims down the road to a death sentence, and in no way resemble legitimate trials under due process of law. Alsaeed noted that Saudi Arabia is unfortunately a current member of the Human Rights Council, which is entirely inappropriate in light of its own dismal human rights record. He added that regardless of how many communications are received in Riyadh from the UN special procedures for human rights, the government continues to sentence and put people to death in flagrant violation of international standards. He concluded by noting the importance of international pressure on Saudi Arabia, given its obvious unwillingness to change its own behavior.

Harriet McCulloch from Reprieve confirmed that her organization is also aware of a number of people on death row who were minors at the time of their supposed “crimes,” which were often nothing more than (alleged) political demonstrations. She stressed the use of the death sentence against nonviolent political protesters in the Kingdom, and recalled the mass execution of 47 people in January 2016. That execution included a victim who had been a minor at the time of his alleged offence: attending a protest. McCulloch recalled that the UK government effectively endorsed this Saudi action when Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond called the 47 put to death in 2016 “terrorists,” echoing Riyadh’s position. She noted that, though there had been a brief pause in executions due to international outcry following that incident, implementation of death sentences handed down by the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), Saudi Arabia’s structurally flawed tribunal for cases of alleged terrorism, has recently resumed. McCulloch reports that Reprieve currently counts six young Saudis on death row who were legal minors at the time of the offences charged. She explained that international law prohibits execution of children, imposition of the death penalty for any but the most serious of crimes (namely, homicide), and the carrying out of the death penalty after legally flawed trial procedures. Saudi Arabia’s acts violate international law on all three counts. Moreover, fair trial by due process is impossible under the current circumstances in Saudi Arabia, McCulloch added. “International law is crystal clear on the imposition of the death penalty for children,” she said, and Saudi Arabia has signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child in which the relevant prohibition is stated. The Arab Charter on Human Rights contains the same prohibition. Riyadh’s execution of those who were minors at the time of offences alleged is hence a flagrant breach of its obligations under international law.

McCulloch, like Mr. Alsaeed, emphasized the need for international pressure on Saudi Arabia. She noted that no court whose performance has been reviewed by the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has been subject to as many critical communications as the Saudi SCC, and quoted the Working Group’s conclusion that it is not a competent tribunal for the conduct of fair trials and that its use as an instrument for the death penalty must be discontinued. She also expressed Reprieve’s concern over the abrupt nature of Saudi executions, which was noted earlier by Alsaeed. Families are not told of an impending execution and authorities will often not disclose to them where the bodies are buried, she added, observing that this may amount to torture under the “severe mental suffering” prong of the international legal definition of that crime.

McCulloch and other panelists agreed that the response from the US and the UK has been silence or complicity when it comes to Saudi executions. The US is well-placed to object to Riyadh’s execution of minors, given its national constitutional prohibition of this practice, but has failed to apply meaningful pressure. The UK has supplied police training that functionally aids Saudi repression, while limiting itself rhetorically to empty statements that, as a country, the UK “opposes the death penalty.”

In response to audience questions, panel members discussed Saudi Arabia’s cybercrimes law, which is one of the instruments used to apply the death sentence for expression of opinion within the Kingdom. ““It’s clear from the court documents that people are being convicted and sentenced to death for using social media,” McCulloch remarked. McDonald added that the Kingdom’s oppressive nature is an outgrowth of its irregular status as the state vehicle of the House of Saud. He opined that sooner or later this anomaly, and the corruption of the ruling family, will result in popular upheaval across all classes and sectors of the country. McCulloch concluded on behalf of Reprieve that for international engagement with Saudi Arabia to remain justified, all death sentences handed down to people who were minors at the time of alleged offences must be annulled unconditionally, and all sentences of the Specialized Criminal Court must be subject to review via fair trials in line with international standards of due process.