officials should immediately make public the whereabouts and condition of a Saudi-Australian man forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia in March 2021, Human Rights Watch said today.
No information has emerged about the situation of Osama al-Hasani, 42, since his deportation to Saudi Arabia from Morocco on March 13. He was apparently wanted in Saudi Arabia for a 2015 car theft case and would face an unfair trial there even though Saudi court documents obtained by Human Rights Watch appear to show that Saudi authorities cleared him of wrongdoing in the case in 2018.
“Trying al-Hasani on charges for which he was previously cleared would be yet another shameless example of the Saudi judiciary’s lack of independence and due process,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Moroccan authorities’ dismissal of al-Hasani’s justified fear of ill-treatment and unfair trial upon return makes a mockery of their international human rights obligations.”
Morocco’s deportation of al-Hasani appears to violate the customary international law principle of nonrefoulement, which obliges countries not to return anyone to places where they would face a real risk of torture, or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.
On March 12, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) sent Moroccan authorities an urgent letter urging them not to deport al-Hasani over fears that he could face torture in Saudi Arabia. Morocco’s mission in Geneva responded the following day saying that Moroccan authorities had already extradited him to Saudi Arabia at 2:45 a.m. on March 13 “before the competent Moroccan authorities were able to process [the March 12 OHCHR request].”
Moroccan authorities detained al-Hasani based on a Saudi Interpol notice on February 8 in the northern city of Tangier, where he had recently joined his wife, a Moroccan citizen, and their newborn child.
The Australian government should press the Saudi government to immediately disclose the whereabouts of its citizen, al-Hasani, and press for his rights to due process and a fair trial, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch has documented numerous instances in which Interpol failed to enforce its own standards by allowing abusive governments to issue politically motivated “red notices” – alerts seeking the arrest and extradition of wanted people – against dissidents and others abroad in retaliation for their criticism.
An informed source told Human Rights Watch that Moroccan authorities denied lawyers and Australian consular officials access to al-Hasani for several weeks due to a discrepancy between al-Hasani’s name on Saudi official documents and Australian documents. Following several quick hearings, the court ruled that he could be deported to Saudi Arabia, and the prime minister signed the order on March 11.
The Saudi extradition request, which is dated February 11, three days following his arrest, states that he is wanted for conspiring with others to steal a number of Range Rovers from a car dealership in February 2015, noting that such charges could carry a penalty of two years in prison. The Saudi extradition request and court documents all refer to al-Hasani as Osama bin Talal Abbas al-Mahrouqi.
The 2018 Saudi lower court trial judgment in the case, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, named six co-defendants. Although al-Hasani was not one of these co-defendants because he was not in Saudi Arabia, prosecutors called him a co-conspirator throughout the trial. In its ruling, the court stated that there was no evidence to convict the six co-defendants, but it nevertheless sentenced all of them to three months in prison in a discretionary ruling, which the Saudi legal system allows.
A September 2019 affidavit from the Justice Ministry, however, noted that following the lower court ruling and appeals ruling, all six co-defendants, as well as al-Hasani, had been cleared of all wrongdoing in the case due to lack of evidence presented by prosecutors. The affidavit stated that the court saw “no reason for the continuation of the search for him, the tracking of his arrival, the arrest warrant, stopping his [government] services, the international extradition request against him, and all criminal procedures against him in this case…”
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly criticized rampant abuses in Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system, including the routine practice of long-term arbitrary detention and sporadic incommunicado detention of prominent detainees.
Saudi Arabia applies Sharia (Islamic law) as its national law. There is no formal penal code, but the government has passed some laws and regulations that subject certain broadly defined offenses to criminal penalties. In the absence of a written penal code or narrowly worded regulations, however, judges and prosecutors can convict people on a wide range of offenses under broad, catch-all charges such as “breaking allegiance with the ruler” or “trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom.”
People accused of crimes, including children, commonly face systematic violations of due process and fair trial rights, including arbitrary arrest. Human Rights Watch has documented rampant due process violations in the court and criminal justice system against defendants in criminal cases. These include long periods of detention without charge or trial, a lack of legal assistance, pressure to sign confessions and accept predetermined prison sentences to avoid prolonged arbitrary detention, and ineffective or pernicious translation services for defendants.
Human Rights Watch has also repeatedly criticized Saudi courts’ reliance on torture-tainted confessions as the sole basis of conviction in certain cases. In March, Human Rights Watch reported on the case of a Saudi child who is facing a death sentence even though he was only 14 at the time of the alleged crime and was convicted largely on the basis of a confession he said that he had made under torture.
As part of the justice reforms Saudi Arabia announced on February 8, the country’s first written penal code for discretionary crimes – undefined crimes under Islamic law that do not carry predetermined punishments – and a law of evidence are being prepared, though apparently without any participation by civil society.
The crown prince said the changes are meant to “increase the level of integrity and efficiency of judicial institutions.” Details are yet to be published, and it is unclear how closely these laws will comply with international standards. There are concerns that many arbitrary charges will simply be codified as wide-ranging, catch-all offenses that criminalize the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly, among other rights.
“Until Saudi Arabia reforms its criminal justice system in compliance with human rights norms, the likelihood is that those who fall afoul of the law will be mistreated,” Page said. “Other countries should not forcibly return people who would most likely face an unfair trial and other abuses in Saudi Arabia.