DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Saudi Arabia put into effect a sweeping new counterterrorism law Sunday that human rights activists say allows the kingdom to prosecute as a terrorist anyone who demands reform, exposes corruption or otherwise engages in dissent.
The law states that any act that “undermines” the state or society, including calls for regime change in Saudi Arabia, can be tried as an act of terrorism. It also grants security services broad powers to raid homes and track phone calls and Internet activity.
Human rights activists were alarmed by the law and said it is clearly aimed at keeping the kingdom’s ruling Al Saud family firmly in control amid the demands for democratic reform that have grown louder since the Arab Spring protests that shook the region in 2011 and toppled longtime autocrats.
Saudi activist Abdulaziz al-Shubaily described the law as a “catastrophe.” And Human Rights Watch researcher Adam Coogle warned: “The new law is draconian in spirit and letter, and there is every reason to fear that the authorities will easily and eagerly use it against peaceful dissidents.”
The measure was approved by the Cabinet on Dec. 16 and ratified by King Abdullah. It was published in its entirety for the first time on Friday in the government’s official gazette Um Al-Qura.
In defence of the law, the Saudi minister of culture and information, Abdel Aziz Khoja, was quoted in December as saying that the legislation strikes a balance between prevention of crimes and protection of human rights according to Islamic law.
Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s last absolute monarchies. All decisions are centred in the hands of 89-year-old King Abdullah. There is no parliament. There is little written law, and judges — implementing the country’s strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam — have broad leeway to impose verdicts and sentences.