On 1 November 2017, Saudi Arabia established a new counter-terrorism law. This law, consisting of 96 articles (27 of which deal solely with punishments), replaces and expands upon the last counter-terror law passed in December 2013. Instead of using the nearly four years since the last passage of law to improve legislation roundly criticized for its inadequacies, the kingdom released a decree that “contains the same flaws as its predecessor and continues to follow the same unacceptably repressive approach.”
Despite widespread criticism of the previous counter-terror law, the Saudi government has not done much in the way of reform. The 2013 law had drawn criticism not only from human rights organizations, but also from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism Ben Emmerson. Emmerson visited Saudi Arabia in early 2017, several years after the passage of the 2013 counter-terror law. Similarly to human rights organizations’ analyses of the law, he found that the law lacked a strong and sufficiently narrow definition of “terrorism.” He remarked that the law’s “unacceptably broad definition” was used to suppress free speech and did not comply with international standards. According to Emmerson, the 2013 law “enable[d] the criminalization of a wide spectrum of acts of peaceful expression,” something critics of the new law have noted as well. “I strongly condemn the use of counter-terrorism legislation and penal sanctions against individuals peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, religion, or association,” he stated in his official report on his visit to the kingdom.
In their analysis of the new law, ALQST raises serious concerns, echoing reservations about the previous law. As ALQST briefly alludes to, Saudi’s definition of “terrorism” and “acts of terror” is highly disputed internationally, and stands without a solid legal foundation. Due to the ambiguous and vague definition of terrorism, this law can be applied to a numberof instances. For example, “disrupting public order,” “undermining the security of the community and the stability of the State,” “endangering national unity,” and “obstructing the basic ruling system,” are used by the law to define terrorist acts, which puts activists, journalists, and opposition members at increased risk for direct reprisals and persecution. Internationally, the definition of terrorism is generally accepted to include the use of violence in pursuit of a terror act. However, violence is not included in Saudi Arabia’s new law. The only mentions of violence are in the Articles of the law that outline the appropriate use of torture against inmates and detainees.
This new law criminalizes committing or abetting certain actions that are undeniably acts of terror. For example, individuals caught conducting terror attacks while carrying arms and explosives can serve between 10-30 years. Similarly, anyone receiving training from a terrorist cell on the subjects of using arms, explosives, chemical substances, wired and wireless telecommunication devices could serve 20-30 years. The law, however, leaves a grey area in some of the descriptions of punishment:establishing a terrorist cell carries a 10-25 year sentence, but the term “terrorist cell” is not clearly defined. One of the most concerning punishments, however, is that against individuals who “misuse their status in any way either academic or social status or media influence to promote terrorism.” This provision will likely be used against activists, and comes with a prison sentence of up to 15 years.
Further contributing to the risks faced by journalists and activistsare Articles 3 and 10 of this new law. Article 3 criminalizes various non-violent actions such as “changing the system of rule,” “obstructing the basic ruling system or provisions thereof,” and “inducing the State to do or abstain from doing any act.” These actions are inherent to successful work of activists in the region, and the ambiguous wording of these provisions will likely be misinterpreted by government agents and used against them. Article 10 poses further risks to activists, by infringing on their right to due process and freedom of movement by administering travel bans without informing the affectedparty.
One positive change between this law and the previousone is the removal of the phrase “harming the reputation and status of the State” from the definition of terrorism. This removal serves to provide some clarity to the kingdom’s notoriously vague and ambiguousdefinition of terrorism. However, this action isdirectly contradicted by Article 30, which deems “portraying the King and Crown Prince in any way that brings religion and justice into disrepute” to be a crime of terror punishable with a minimum of 5 and up to 10 years in jail.
While Saudi Arabia is already noted as one of theworld’s worst offenders in terms of executions, this law further contributes to the kingdom’s notorious reputation for their overuse of capital punishment, specifically concerning the provisions for the death penalty in Articles 40 and 41. The articles state that if an individual conducts an act of terror that results in the death of anyone, the individual will face the death penalty. Also included in the law are provisions for the use of force by military and police personnel within specific regulations (Article 15). Not included, however, are any actual regulations for this use of force. When paired with the direct violations of due process found in Articles 10, 19, 20, and 27, these articles are great cause for concern.
While the new law changes some things, it is still very similar to the previous law. For instance, not unlike its predecessor, the new law does not explicitly prohibit or condemn torture. “Use of force” is often mentioned in the law, but no regulating guidelines are introduced. As a result of these and other issues, including a widely disputed definition of terrorism, the law is deeply flawed and is not fit for legal execution. This law may pretend to protect, but it will likely instead be used by state security forces as a tool to carry out violent acts against activists. The definition of terrorism must, in order to avoid misinterpretation, include the use of violence. Violations of due process in various articles of the law must be amended, and activists expressing dissenting opinions must be overtly protected within this law.