JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Amnesty International accused Saudi Arabia of planning a crackdown on public dissent with new anti-terror legislation that it said was a cover to stop further pro-democracy protests in the absolute monarchy.
The Draft Penal Law for Terrorism Crimes and Financing Terrorism, published by Amnesty on its website, would allow extended detentions without charge or trial and impose a minimum 10 year jail sentence on anyone who questions the integrity of the king or crown prince.
Apart from small protests in the oil-producing east that ended with some arrests, Saudi Arabia has not seen the kind of mass street upheaval of Bahrain and other countries in the region since Tunisians ousted former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January. Ben Ali is in exile in Saudi Arabia.
“This draft law poses a serious threat to freedom of expression in the Kingdom in the name of preventing terrorism. If passed it would pave the way for even the smallest acts of peaceful dissent to be branded terrorism,” Amnesty said in a statement.
A justice ministry official said he had no comment and a Shura Council spokesman Mohammed Almohanna said he was not aware of the draft.
Activists say thousands are held in Saudi prisons without charge or access to lawyers, despite a law that limits detention without trial to six months. The draft law would largely formalize such practices.
The draft law considers “endangering... national unity” and “harming the reputation of the state or its position” as “terrorist crimes” and allows suspects to be held incommunicado for an indefinite period, if approved by a specialized court.
Independent rights activist Ibrahim Almugaiteeb said the new measures, if passed, would be a step back for Saudi Arabia, which has advanced some social and economic reforms under King Abdullah.
“If this law is passed as is it’s going to be a total disaster for freedom of expression and all activism in Saudi Arabia including human rights,” said Almugaiteeb, who heads the Human Rights First Society.
“I call on the Shura Council to be very careful before passing this law and on the Custodian of The Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz to stop this massacre of freedoms.”
The draft published by Amnesty gives wide-ranging powers to the Minister of the Interior to take action to protect internal security, without requiring judicial authorization or oversight.
Sixteen Saudi pro-democracy activists are being tried on sedition and terrorism-linked charges in a Jeddah villa that belongs to the Interior Ministry after more than four years in detention.
The group of lawyers, professors and activists were mostly detained in 2007 after they met in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah to discuss reform in the conservative Muslim kingdom.
Al Qaeda launched a campaign of attacks in Saudi Arabia in 2003 which fizzled out in 2006 but the government fears al Qaeda militants could use their base in Yemen to restart operations.
The government also fears that Shi‘ite Iran could stir up dissent among minority Shi‘ites to destabilize the kingdom, home to Islam’s holiest sites.
Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally and the world’s leading oil exporter, has no political parties and its parliament is an appointed body with limited powers.
Reporting by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton