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Enforced disappearance in Saudi Arabia: A crime out of control

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On 30 August 2020, the world marked International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. At the same time, the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia continues to use enforced disappearance as a strategy that the UN believes is often used “to spread terror within society.” Saudi Arabia is considered one of the countries that uses enforced disappearance systematically and under official cover, ensuring a continued policy of impunity amid the absence of an independent judiciary.

Saudi Arabia has not ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which entered into force in 2010 with the goals of preventing enforced disappearance, achieving justice for survivors, victims, and their families, uncovering truth, and ensuring adequate compensation.

In addition to failing to ratify the international convention, the Saudi government allows deficiencies in its laws, especially the counterterrorism law, to form a pretext for carrying out the crime of enforced disappearance. For example, Article 20 of the law permits the government to isolate a detainee from his family and the outside world for 90 days, if required in the interests of the investigation, and “if the investigation requires a longer period of isolation, the matter shall be referred to the Specialized Court.”


Types of enforced disappearance

The international convention defines enforced disappearance as “any form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support, or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which places such a person outside the protection of the law.” As a result, enforced disappearance in Saudi Arabia may mean that hours, days, and in some cases a longer period may elapse from the time of the arrest before the family is notified or the deprivation of liberty is acknowledged.  Sometimes the detention is not even acknowledged at all. As it is for various violations and crimes committed by official agencies, it is difficult to document crimes of enforced disappearance because Saudi civil society is permitted no internal role. ESOHR has monitored many cases in which the Saudi government has practiced enforced disappearance and believes that the true number is even greater.


Prelude to torture

During disappearance, basic rights are violated, including the right to protection from torture and the right to a fair trial. ESOHR monitoring has shown that the government uses enforced disappearance in many cases as a prelude to torture, followed by ill treatment with the goal of extracting confessions later used for harsh sentences that may include the death penalty. Among them is the case of Amjad al-Moebid, a citizen who, along with others, was executed in July 2017, after he had been forcibly disappeared for a week after his arrest by men in civilian clothing. In addition to al-Moebid, the Saudi government executed a young demonstrator, Abdullah Al Tarif, along with 36 others, in April 2019, after he was forcibly disappeared for 12 days following his arrest. Some of these cases go back to when the defendants were minors, such as Mohammad Essam al-Faraj, who was arrested in July 2017, at the age of 15. He was forcibly disappeared, and his family was not informed of his whereabouts until a day after his arrest. Al-Faraj is currently at risk of execution after the public prosecution requested his transfer.

Enforced disappearance has also targeted a number of princes from the royal family. Some of them were arrested and hidden from the outside world, as occurred to Princess Basmah bint Saud and other princes, while others were kidnapped abroad.

Furthermore, there are various cases of enforced disappearance against foreigners, documented by assorted entities. For example, Saudi intelligence services arrested a Jordanian youth of Palestinian descent, Khaled al-Natour, in 2013, for the sole reason that he arrived at the Riyadh airport for a work trip. He was arrested and forcibly disappeared for three months under vague circumstances before being released and sent back to his country. Al-Natour was neither charged nor presented to the court. Reports indicate that he was arrested for criticizing the participation of the Jordanian gendarmerie in the Peninsula Shield Force in Bahrain. Likewise, Jordanian citizen Hussein Abu al-Khair was forcibly disappeared for 12 days before he was allowed to contact his family. He is currently facing threat of execution due to confessions extracted under torture during his disappearance.


Prelude to killing

The Saudi government practices enforced disappearance against individuals with the intention of killing them later. In the case of Makki al-Areedh, a young man who was disappeared for two days, the al-Awamiyah police station told his family that he died of fright after his arrest. However, the marks on his body made very clear that he was harshly tortured during his enforced disappearance.

In the case of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi government did not acknowledge that government employees were responsible for killing him and concealing his fate in the Saudi consulate in Turkey until 17 days after his disappearance, after it became clear that he had been killed and his body hidden.


Ongoing denial

In some cases monitored by ESOHR, the Saudi government has denied responsibility for disappearances that other branches of government have already admitted doing. In the case of preacher Suleiman al-Dawish, who was disappeared in April 2016, the Saudi government has still not officially acknowledged his arrest even though his name appears on the electronic website, Nafethah, that provides the names and condition of detainees.The scarce information indicates that he is under investigation, although the name was deleted after a time. ESOHR has also monitored the lack of news regarding detainee Ahmed al-Mughassil since his arrest at the Beirut airport and extradition in August 2015. Likewise, the fate of Mohammed Al Omar has remained unknown for 226 days, and that of Abdulrahman al-Sadhan for 889 days.

The nature of enforced disappearance in Saudi Arabia demonstrates that it is used as a means of retaliation, as the practice is used more often against dissidents, activists, and opinion-holders. Besides the disappearance of individuals, the Saudi government also uses enforced disappearance of the bodies of people killed by arbitrary or extrajudicial rulings. ESOHR has documented the concealment of the whereabouts of 86 bodies since 2016. In paragraph 6 of its general comment on the right to know the truth, the Working Group on Enforced Disappearances notes: “The right to know the truth about the fate and the whereabouts includes, when the disappeared person is found to be dead, the right of the family to have the remains of their loved one returned to them, and to dispose of those remains according to their own tradition, religion, or culture.” The Saudi government violates international norms and laws by preventing families from exercising their right to dispose of the remains of their family members, killed at the hands of official entities, as they see fit.


Cause for concern on International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances

ESOHR monitoring shows that the concerns raised by the UN on the occasion of the International Day in support of the victims of enforced disappearance are evident in the approach taken by Saudi Arabia. It appears that the government has deliberately exploited counterterrorism activities as an excuse to violate its obligations and prevent individuals who are being tried under the counterterrorism law from communicating with their families for varying periods of time, up to several years.

While the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance stresses that “any person who commits, orders, solicits, or induces the commission of, or attempts to commit, is an accomplice to or participates in an enforced disappearance,” Saudi Arabia continues to implement a policy of impunity for the accused, especially given the absence of any form of judicial independence and the broad powers of the Presidency of State Security, the agency directly responsible for arrests of activists and human rights advocates. This is glaringly obvious in the case of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in which the individuals believed to be responsible for those who carried out the killing were not investigated, nor were those responsible for issuing orders, including the disappearance order.

ESOHR emphasizes that enforced disappearance in Saudi Arabia is a systematic practice used by the Saudi government as retaliation. The country does not currently have the groundwork to curb this practice. While the practice is based on deficient laws and numerous legal excesses, denial and lack of accountability allow this crime to persist.

ESOHR believes that Saudi Arabia’s refusal to sign the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance indicates its lack of good faith in stopping the crime of enforced disappearance.

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