Saudi Arabia: UN Group denounces continued and widespread use of enforced disappearances

7 October 2020

The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) has recently published a general allegation decrying the widespread practice of enforced disappearances in Saudi Arabia. The letter was sent to the authorities after the WGEID’s 121st session in May 2020, following a previous submission by MENA Rights Group.

In its allegation, the WGEID highlighted several impediments to the implementation of the 1992 Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearances in the country, concluding that they were “pervasive and deliberate”, and “embedded in the institutional and policy framework of Saudi Arabia.” The Group also denounced the use of detention and disappearances “to suppress beliefs and behaviours that do not align with state-sanctioned political and religious dogma.”

Enforced disappearances: a tool of repression

In its allegation, the WGEID stated that enforced disappearances in Saudi Arabia have been “the result of a repressive environment against manifestations of free speech and peaceful assembly.” The Working Group found that not only are enforced disappearances used as a tool of repression by state authorities, but that recorded cases suggest a trend whereby such practice is used to silence or punish dissenting voices, including human rights defenders and journalists within the kingdom. The general allegation maintains that this practice is used “as a subjugation technique and interrogation practice targeting dissenting voices.”

Flawed legal framework

Further exacerbating the perpetuation of enforced disappearances in the country, Saudi Arabia’s flawed legal framework allows for the continuation of such practices. The WGEID affirmed that “Saudi Arabia does not have specific legal provisions criminalising enforced disappearance, and the existing legislation fails to offer sufficient protection against this crime, leaving persons vulnerable to the discretionary practices of the institutions holding criminal justice power.” Though the practice of enforced disappearances constitutes a crime under international law, it is not criminalised in Saudi Arabia.

Citing the former Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, who visited the country in 2017, the WGEID also found that Saudi Arabia has systematically failed to provide detainees with their procedural guarantees during investigation and in detention. Moreover, Saudi’s Code of Criminal Procedure does not spell out a time limit within which detained persons must be granted access to a lawyer. In fact, investigators may detain individuals up to 60 days, without charge, while denying them the right to contact a person of their choice.

The role of Saudi institutions, including the Mabahith

In their letter, the WGEID assessed the ways in which the “absence of effective checks and balances” in the country has enabled human rights violations to take place. Following various political restructurings in 2017, the Kingdom’s security apparatus has been placed under the sole authority of the King. Since then, the newly formed Mabahith – the secret police agency of the presidency of state security – which is responsible for many of the disappearances taking place in the country, has gained authority over all the security institutions. It reports directly to the King and Crown Prince, and is not subject to judicial oversight.

Furthermore, the WGEID recalled that judges are appointed and removed by Royal Decree, thus placing the judiciary under heavy interference from the executive. This has been coupled with the absence of any accountability measures for allegations of torture and other forms of ill-treatment against detainees.

No effective remedies and fear from reprisals

In Saudi Arabia, relatives of disappeared persons have no access to effective remedies. They are systematically denied information on their missing loved ones, and are never made aware of the avenues they can pursue.

Worse, a culture of fear has been cultivated as a result of fears of reprisals, which are “further heightened by the prospect that enquiries with the authorities will put the disappeared person at greater risk of abuse.”  In several instances, relatives of disappeared persons have been detained for simply speaking out about their family members being abducted. As such, prospects for accountability for enforced disappearances remain improbable.

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