Defamation / Reputation, Hate Speech, Political Expression
Awan v. Levant
Closed Contracts Expression
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The Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, sentenced Shi’a cleric Sheikh Mohammed Al-Habib, to five years imprisonment, on top of a previous sentence of seven years, for breaking a pledge and inciting sedition and sectarianism. Al-Habib is known for his activism in support of political and economic reforms and for denouncing discrimination against the Shi’a minority in Saudi Arabia. In 2018 he was sentenced to seven years imprisonment for breaking a 2012 pledge not to deliver sermons considered objectionable by the ruling authorities and hence inviting sedition. This subsequent case was brought on related charges but based on additional evidence, while he was incarcerated. The Court found him guilty of violations under the Terrorism Crimes and Financing Act and for endorsing extremist religious groups under Royal Order No. A/44. Applying Sharia Law, the Court determined that he had violated his pledge, and was legally responsible for his confessed words and actions. The Court further invoked the Al Ta’zir penalty which gives the presiding judge full discretion to determine the appropriate punishment. This is the last in a series of decisions by the Specialized Criminal Court against Al-Habib for criticizing state sponsored discrimination.
On May 11, 2020 the UN Special Procedures including the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression issued a communication expressing their serious concern at the persecution and ongoing detention of Mohammed bin Hassan al-Habib. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is currently translating the reply received from Saudi Arabia.
Columbia Global Freedom of Expression notes that some of the information contained in this report was derived from secondary sources.
Information regarding this case was provided by MENA Rights Group.
Mohammed Al-Habib is a Shi’a cleric. The Shi’a in Saudi Arabia are a Muslim religious minority and according to Human Rights Watch, “[d]ozens of Saudi Shia are in prison for participating in protests since 2011 calling for full equality and basic rights for all Saudis.” In 2012 the Shi’a dominated eastern region of Saudia Arabia was going through its own version of the Arab Spring and activists called for civil and political reforms. Specifically, they protested against economic inequality, political marginalization and religious exclusion in the social, educational and judicial systems.
Al-Habib has a history of persecution by the Saudi authorities which dates back to July 2012 when he delivered a sermon in which he denounced discrimination against the Shi’a minority and called for reforms including protection for freedom of expression and the release of detained activists. Saudi authorities claimed that Al-Habib’s sermons insulted Sunni religious leaders, fostered sectarianism and incited violence. In an effort to quell dissent, he was forced to sign a pledge on December 17, 2012 not to give sermons that could be considered “objectionable” by the authorities.
On July 8, 2016, he was arrested at the Khafji border crossing between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for allegedly attempting to cross the borders illegally. According to a family member, Al-Habib was unaware that a travel ban had been issued against him.
On October 27, 2016, he was charged by the Specialized Criminal Court with violating the terms of the pledge he had signed in 2012.
At first, he was acquitted by the Specialized Criminal Court on August 22, 2017 which considered he was committed to his pledge and found insufficient evidence that he had breached it. However, the same court on appeal overturned this decision on January 4, 2018 and sentenced him to seven years in prison for charges of “sectarianism” and “calling people for sedition”, based on Article 1, paragraph (a), of the Terrorism Crimes and Financing act and the Royal Order No. A/44.
While serving his sentence, he was further charged with “endeavouring to shake the societal fabric and national unity by supporting protests in inciting riots in al-Qatif Governorate,”; possessing documents that encourage disobedience of the Ruler; violating the Cybercrime Law; and attempting to leave Saudi Arabia for Kuwait irregularly. The new charges were brought based on evidence found on his computer, such as a photo of a Shi’a cleric executed by the Saudi regime.
On May 11, 2020 the UN Special Procedures including the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression issued a communication expressing their concern at the persecution and ongoing detention of Mohammed al-Habib. The Special Procedures highlighted the use of torture and ill-treatment to extract confessions and possible incriminating evidence as well as serious human rights violations, including the absence of due diligence and of fair trial guarantees, violations of the rights of children in conflict with the law, the non-respect of human rights of prisoners including with regard to access to adequate healthcare and the reported use of prolonged solitary confinement. Sheikh al-Habib remains in detention in Mabaheth prison in Dammam. Due to Covid-19 prison visits have reportedly been suspended until further notice and he has no access to proper medical care for his health condition.
The Specialized Criminal Court, established in 2008 and competent for terrorism-related crimes, delivered the verdict on August 26, 2019.
The main issue before the court was to decide whether the speeches and sermons delivered by Mohammed Al-Habib, which called for the end of discrimination against the Shi’a minority, amounted to a call for rebellion and an act of terrorism in infringement of The Terrorism Crimes and Financing Act and the Royal order No. A/44.
The Terrorism Crimes and Financing Act defines a terrorist crime under Article 1 paragraph (a) as being: “Every act committed by the perpetrator in implementation of a criminal project, individually or collectively, directly or indirectly, intended to disturb public order, to undermine the security of society and the state’s stability, or endanger its national unity, to disrupt the basic statute of government or some of its articles, or to damage the state’s reputation or its position, or cause damage to one of the state’s facilities or its natural resources, or an attempt to compel one of its authorities to take action or refrain from it, or threaten to carry out actions that lead to or incite the mentioned purposes.” The court referred to this specific article to indict Mohammed Al-Habib for inviting people to sedition.
Royal Order No. A/44, issued on February 3rd 2014 by King Abdullah, mainly concerns supporting terrorist groups outside Saudi Arabia, it does however punish according to its Article 1 paragraph (2): “Affiliation with extremist religious or intellectual currents or groups, or those classified as terrorist organizations internally, regionally or internationally, or endorsing them or adopting their ideas or approach in any way, or expressing sympathy with them in any way, or providing any of the forms financial or moral support for it, or inciting or encouraging any of it, or promoting it by saying or writing in any way.”
The Royal Order itself doesn’t specify which groups are classified as terrorists but Article 1 paragraph 4 directs the creation of a committee to do so: “A committee shall be formed from the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Endowments, Advocacy and Guidance, the Ministry of Justice, the Board of Grievances, and the Bureau of Investigation and Public Prosecution, whose task will be to prepare a list – updated periodically – with the currents and groups referred to in Paragraph (2) of Article 1 of this order, and submit it to us, for consideration of its approval.”
The Court then quoted phrases from a few of Al-Habib’s sermons which it believed proved he had broken his pledge and contained prohibited language, such as “when a Shi’a goes to a Sunni judge, would he receive him with tolerance? Or even from within he feels hatred towards him!” The court considered that since defendant admitted to giving the speeches which were attributed to him, he was “legally capable, responsible for his words and actions.” The Court also established that it is “agreed upon that whoever commits a forbidden act or abandons a duty deserves punishment, if it is not addressed by Shari’ah, then it is for the endeavor of the ruler [to determine what is appropriate], as decided by Ibn Taymiyah (may Allah have mercy on him) in his book ‘The Shari’ah policy.’”
The court also considered that compliance and obedience to the Ruler is an Islamic Doctrine that one must abide by, because it is linked to the higher obedience of God (Allah), hence every disobedience of the Ruler is a disobedience of Allah. The Court explained that “[i]n prophetic tradition (Allah establishes checks by the State authority on things for which check by Qur’an is not enough) and as evidenced by the Sharia texts, it is obligatory to listen to and obey the imam, where compliance and obedience to the ruler is considered Doctrine of the Sunnis and the community.”
In assessing the charges of sedition and “shaking” national unity, the Court cited Islamic Scholars who established that being “committed to the group… is one of the priorities of interest that Islamic law seeks to achieve in society: to call for the unity of word and rows, to support the rulers and obey them, Allah says (interpretation of the meaning) : ‘And hold fast, all of you together, to the Rope of Allah, and be not divided among yourselves.’” It further referred to a statement by the Supreme Council of Scholars at its fifty-ninth session in 2003, dated 14/6/1424 AH, which states: “The Council warns of the advocates of misguidance and sedition who appeared in these times, they confused the Muslims and incited them to disobey their rulers, which is a major prohibition, however, one should adhere to this true faith and walk on the straight path based on the Quran and the Sunnah as per the understanding of the Sahaabah.”
The court also referred to the Anti Cybercrime law to condemn the defendant for possession of documents that criticize the State, and the travel documents law for his illegal escape attempt.
Accordingly, the Court found the defendant guilty of the charges of inviting people to sedation and sectarianism which falls under disobeying the Ruler, in addition to attempting to leave the country illegally. For this, he was sentenced to five additional years in prison, over and above the previous seven, as well as a five-year travel ban after he finishes his entire twelve-year sentence.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The Specialized Criminal Court in Saudi Arabia was created in 2008 to render verdicts in terrorism related crimes. However, this court has been criticized for being the Saudi Authorities’ tool to silence and prosecute dissidents or opposing voices with terrorism related crimes.
In Mohammed Al-Habib’s case, the Court invoked the Al Ta’zir penalty to indict him which is a penalty that relies solely on the discretion and opinions and views of the judge who usually has a broad interpretation of his authority.
Further Al-Habib was charged under The Terrorism Crimes and Financing Act which has been criticized as being a set of “vague and overly broad provisions that allow authorities to criminalize free expression, and the creation of excessive police powers without judicial oversight.” Non-violent acts such as insulting the reputation of the State are considered terrorism under this Act as are the ill-defined crimes of harming public order or “shaking the security of society.”
The MENA Rights Group has requested the intervention of UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention arguing that Sheikh Al-Habib’s “arrest constituted a violation of international law on the grounds of discrimination on the basis of his membership to a persecuted and marginalised religious minority group.”
The decision is an obvious restriction of the freedom of expression, as it targets a member of a minority group who preaches about the importance of ending hate speech and biased governmental attitudes toward the Shi’a minority. Instead of taking those opinions into account, and requiring equal treatment of all the citizens, the Saudi judicial system considered this to be an act of rebellion against the ruler and sentenced the defendant to a total of twelve years imprisonment which is not only a violation of the right to freedom expression but is also highly disproportionate to the charges he is accused of.
Sentencing the defendant to a travel ban five years after he finishes his sentence of twelve years in prison, constitutes a further violation of the right to freedom movement, yet was somehow interpreted as an extension of the sentence.
It is worth mentioning that Saudi Arabia has signed neither the Universal Declaration of Human Rights nor the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It has however ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, with the reservation that it will apply the provisions of the convention as long as they don’t contradict the Shari’a Law.
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