Amnesty slams leaked Saudi draft penal code, urges changes

By Thomson Reuters Mar 19, 2024 | 8:22 AM

RIYADH (Reuters) – Amnesty International criticised a leaked draft of Saudi Arabia’s first penal code on Tuesday, saying it would codify practices ranging from flogging to gender discrimination and urging changes to align it with international standards.

In a report, Amnesty said the draft penal code “shatters the illusion” that de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman “is pursuing a truly reformist agenda” – a reference to social and economic changes he has introduced to modernise Saudi Arabia, attract investment and open up the country to tourism.

Amnesty said the draft was first leaked in 2022 and that its authenticity had been confirmed by Saudi legal experts.

Amnesty said the Saudi Human Rights Commission had denied the document’s authenticity after it wrote to the commission and the Saudi government to share its analysis. The Commission told Amnesty a draft code was now undergoing legislative review.

The Saudi government media communications office and the Saudi Human Rights Commission did not immediately respond to questions from Reuters about the Amnesty report.

The leaked draft, a copy of which was shared with Reuters by Amnesty, carries no date and runs to 116 pages.

Saudi Arabia’s legal system has historically relied on judges’ interpretation of Islamic law and has not been codified into written law, making rulings dependent on judicial discretion.

In 2021, Crown Prince Mohammed announced judicial reform plans that would eventually lead to an entirely codified law.

“A first written penal code could be a crucial opportunity for Saudi Arabia’s authorities to transform their abusive criminal justice system into one that respects human rights,” said Agnes Callamard, Amnesty’s secretary general.

“However, our analysis of the leaked draft code reveals it is essentially a manifesto for repression that would entrench human rights violations and suppress freedoms.”

Long shaped by the strict Wahhabi school of Islam, Saudi Arabia has undergone changes in recent years, with reforms that have curbed the power of religious police, allowed cinemas and permitted women to drive.

But Riyadh also drew international censure over the killing of journalist Jamal al-Khashoggi in 2018, the jailing of female activists who campaigned for women’s right to drive, and issuing death sentences or decades-long sentences for social media posts.

Crown Prince Mohammed, in an interview with Fox News last September, indicated he wanted legal reform. “Do we have bad laws? Yes. Are we are changing that? Yes,” he said.

In December, Saudi Arabia introduced its first written civil code – a civil transactions law aimed at creating a more stable environment for investors.

Amnesty said the leaked draft criminalised rights to freedom of expression, thought and religion, along with “illegitimate” consensual sexual relations, homosexuality, and abortion, and failed to protect women and girls from gender-based violence.

It also codifies use of the death penalty and continues to permit corporal punishments such as flogging, it said.

With the draft code still under legislative review, Amnesty said, Saudi authorities could still demonstrate “their pledges of reform are more than empty promises”.

(Reporting by Pesha Magid; Editing by Tom Perry)