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Saudi Arabia amends highly criticized anti-terrorism law

Saudi Arabian officials on Saturday proposed amendments to the draft anti-terrorism law that received much criticism from human rights groups. A spokesperson for the Shura Council confirmed [Reuters report] that the draft of the Penal Law for Terrorism Crimes and Financing of Terrorism [text, in Arabic] was discussed during a session of the council in which changes to make the law less severe were proposed. The amended version of the law would criminalize taking up arms against the king or crown prince as opposed to the original version, which made questioning the king or crown prince a crime, carrying a minimum prison sentence of 10 years. The council seeks to amend the draft further before sending it to the king for approval. However, the changes may be overridden, given the council's limited powers. Amnesty International (AI) [advocacy website] revealed [JURIST report] the draft law and criticized it in a press release, contending that the legislation's definition of "terrorist crimes" is overly broad and would allow authorities to prosecute protestors for a wide range of conduct. AI also claimed that the draft law conflicts with international human rights treatises such as the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT) [text].

The proposed law comes in response to recent civil unrest in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern and North African nations, but this is not the first time Saudi Arabia has been criticized for rigid counterterrorism practices. Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] reported [text, PDF] in 2009 that Saudi Arabia was illegally detaining thousands [press release] under the auspices of combating terrorism. The report echoed another AI report [text; JURIST report] which claimed that Saudi Arabian officials were allegedly using anti-terrorism measures as an excuse to secretly detain, imprison, torture and even kill thousands of people. In February 2009, the US Department of State released its 2008 Report on Human Rights Practices for Saudi Arabia [text; JURIST report], in which it identified several significant human rights issues, including denial of public trials and lack of due process in the judicial system, detention of political prisoners, incommunicado detention and lack of government transparency. Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz [official website, in Arabic] announced in October 2008 that the kingdom had indicted 991 [Reuters report] suspected al Qaeda members. HRW sought access [HRW request] to the trials in an attempt to ensure compliance with international standards, but was denied.

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