[JURIST] UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navy Pillay [official profile] on Thursday expressed deep concern [press release] over the harsh sentences and detention of peaceful human rights advocates in Saudi Arabia in recent months. In particular, Pillay expressed concern over the sentence imposed upon Saudi human rights activist and lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair [AI report], who is the founder and chief of the human rights group Saudi Arabia Monitor of Human Rights. Abu al-Khair was taken into custody [JURIST report] in April on charges that include inciting public opinion. Abu al-Khair was sentenced to 15 years in prison on Sunday by the Specialized Penal Court [HRW backgrounder] for a litany of non-violent terrorism related charges. Additionally, Pillay's statement referenced harsh sentences of four other human rights defenders who were convicted by the Specialized Penal Court in the past two years. Pillay called for an investigation into alleged procedural irregularities in the Saudi courts. Saudi Arabia is a member country of the UN Human Rights Council [official website], but there have been reports of ill-treatment against prisoners while in detention, such as lashings, solitary confinement, sleep deprivation and denial of access to legal counsel and family. Pillay called on Saudi Arabia to abide by its commitment to the Human Rights Council and ensure that judicial and law enforcement systems are not used to prosecute individuals for expressing their political or religious views.
Saudi Arabia's human rights record has drawn heavy criticism from international rights groups following the ratification [JURIST report] of new counterterrorism laws by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz [official profile] in early February 2014. JURIST Guest Columnist Adam Coogle of Human Rights Watch (HRW) [official website] argued [JURIST op-ed] that Saudi Arabia's new terrorism law is a vague, catch-all document that can—and probably will—be used to prosecute or jail anyone who criticizes the Saudi government and to violate their due process rights along the way. In February Amnesty International (AI) [advocacy website] criticized [JURIST report] the Saudi Arabian counterterrorism law because the law will deepen existing patterns of human rights violations and will be used to crack down on peaceful dissent. In December HRW urged [JURIST report] Abdullah bin Abdulaziz to reject the counterterrorism bill before it became law, arguing that many fundamental human rights would be threatened.