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Saudi Arabia must release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally irrespective of royal pardon conditions

    February 06, 2015

    Amnesty International fears that most prisoners of conscience will likely be excluded from the royal pardon announced by King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud on 29 January, according to the Ministry of Interior’s pardon conditions.

    The royal pardon which referred to the conditions of the pardon stipulated in the Ministry of Interior’s official communication dated 27 January, a copy of which Amnesty International has seen, excludes “crimes related to state security” from the pardon. “Crimes related to state security” does not refer to clearly defined or codified articles in Saudi Arabian laws but to vaguely worded list of charges commonly faced by human rights activists and prisoners of conscience both in the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), the country’s infamous security and counter-terror court, and in other criminal courts.

    Almost all prisoners of conscience adopted by Amnesty International and whose names are listed below, have been sentenced on state security-related charges that have come to be listed as “terrorist crimes” under the counter-terror law of February 2014. Many of them were tried by the SCC, the only security and counter-terror court, and could therefore by default be considered state security related cases.

    The charges on the basis of which human rights activists and other prisoners of conscience were sentenced, and variations of which are now considered “terrorist crimes”, typically included “breaking allegiance to and disobeying the ruler”, “seeking to disrupt security and inciting disorder by calling for demonstrations”, “harming the reputation of the Kingdom”, as well as “disseminating false information to foreign groups” and “forming or participating in forming an unlicensed organization.”

    The Ministry of Interior’s three-page document that stipulates the conditions for the pardon does not mention all conditions that Amnesty International has become aware of, including the condition typically used by the authorities in recent years in the form of pledges, either oral or signed by prisoners to “apologize for offences and pledge not to repeat them.” This has typically meant that activists have had to stop their activism and give up their right to free expression. Amnesty International has learned that officials have approached current prisoners of conscience this past week to unofficially inquire about their reaction to such potential conditional pardons.

    Announced pardon conditions 

    The Ministry of Interior’s official communication classifies sentences, cases and crimes into a number of categories, including Hudud vs Ta’zir sentences, “public right” vs “private right” cases, “serious crimes” vs lesser crimes, years of imprisonment, amount of financial penalties, and whether or not the person has been convicted and sentenced, or is suspected or charged but not yet sentenced.

    Excluded from the pardon is a list of 14 different types of crimes such as crimes punishable under Hudud, crimes related to “private rights”, “crimes related to state security”, and also “drug trafficking” and “rape, armed robbery and banditry” which are crimes punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.

    “Private right” offences cannot be pardoned without the consent of the individual or individuals whose rights were violated and who had brought and won a lawsuit against the offender. The royal pardon therefore only covers “public right” cases where the public prosecution had brought charges against an offender who was deemed to have harmed the state, or public property, or the national community, or violated the laws of the country.

    Hudud sentences are those that are considered fixed as they are mentioned in the Quran, and they are therefore excluded from the pardon. Ta’zir sentences are typically considered discretionary and corrective punishments for lesser crimes. Prisoners sentenced to Ta’zir punishments for lesser crimes related to “public rights” would be fully pardoned and released, and would not be expected to pay any fines or be subject to flogging, unless the flogging is in relation to a crime punishable under Hudud.

    Those convicted of “serious crimes” related to “public rights” will be completely pardoned from fines and Ta’zir flogging, but will serve a quarter of their prison term if they were sentenced to two years in prison or less, half if they were sentenced to between two and five years, and two-thirds if they were sentenced to above five years in prison.

    Many previous royal pardons have had similar conditions to those that appear in the 27 January official communication. Some had further criteria, such as the age of the convict, or the type of drug found in the possession of a suspect who was sentenced for drug-possession. In some previous royal pardons for example, prisoners sentenced on charges related to possession of Qat, a stimulant commonly used in Yemen where it is legal, were pardoned.

    “Crimes related to state security” have also typically been excluded from previous royal pardons. The difference this time however is that none of those prisoners of conscience would likely be pardoned unlike on some previous occasions, given that they were directly targeted by the current Minister of Interior and given that “crimes related to state security” have come to be more clearly listed as “terrorist crimes” under the counter-terror law.

    One noteworthy absence from the current list of excluded crimes are those related to harming or offending Islam, which used to be clearly excluded from most previous pardons. This time however, they have not been specifically mentioned either as included or excluded.

    The pardon’s applicability to current prisoners of conscience

    Amnesty International has named more than a dozen prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia, who are behind bars for their peaceful activism. They include Sheikh Suliaman al-Rashudi, Dr Abdullah al-Hamid, Dr Mohammed al-Qahtani, Dr Abdulaziz al-Khodr, Mohammed al-Bajadi, Fowzan al-Harbi, Dr Abdulrahman al-Hamid, Saleh al-Ashwan, Omar al-Sa’id, Fadhel al-Manasif, Loujain al-Hathloul, Maysaa al-Amoudi, Waleed Abu al-Khair and Raif Badawi.

    It appears that all those who have been charged with and sentenced on charges such as “disturbing” public order, “destabilising the security of society or the stability of the state”, “exposing its national unity to danger”, “revoking the basic law of government or any of its articles”, or “harming the reputation of the state or its standing”, which are the catch-all charges brought against activists and critics, will likely be excluded from the pardon. This includes all of the above prisoners of conscience, with the potential exception of Raif Badawi.

    Raif Badawi’s flogging, which caused an international outcry over the past weeks, is not directly related to “state security” crimes, although he has been sentenced on accusations of “insulting Islam”, which is considered a “serious crime”, and founding the “Free Saudi Liberals Network” that contained information deemed “harmful” to “public order”. But it is unclear whether he would be included in the terms of the pardon.

    Given the vague nature of crimes listed as related to state security, it is not inconceivable that the prosecution or the authorities can make the argument that “insulting Islam” as well as “harming public order” should be considered “state security related crimes”. If however the authorities decide not to make such an argument, and to include Raif Badawi in the pardon, then according to the above conditions of the pardon, his flogging should be cancelled, fines removed, and sentence reduced from 10 to seven years in prison.

    Over the last few days, Saudi Arabian media reported the pardoning and release of hundreds of convicts and prisoners. According to these reports, all of those pardoned so far had been convicted of common criminal, rather than political, charges. It does not appear that anyone with a similar case to Raif Badawi has been pardoned, and there has been no indication that Raif Badawi or others potentially sentenced on similar charges will be pardoned. All other prisoners of conscience and human rights activists will most likely not be pardoned.

    Saudi Arabia should immediately and unconditionally release all those imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. They should commute all death sentences and corporal punishments and release or retry, in proceedings that respect international standards, prisoners who have been convicted in unfair trials.

    For further information, please contact Elizabeth Berton-Hunter, Media Relations 416-363-9933 ext 332