US urged to sanction officials who abuse protesters

September 13, 2017

Image of a child with his hands tied

Rights groups have urged the US to use a new type of sanction against foreign officials accused of rights abuses – including Saudi judges that have recently sentenced protesters to death.

A group of 23 NGOs – including Reprieve, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights First – have asked the US to use the Global Magnitsky Act, passed in December 2016, to apply individual sanctions against a list of rights-abusing officials in 15 countries. In a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the rights organizations urge the US to use the Act against the judges at Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court, as well as against the Chief Of Public Prosecution in Bahrain, and two senior police officers in Egypt, among others.

The letter comes as it emerged that a juvenile protester, Abdulkarim al-Hawaj, is facing imminent execution in Saudi Arabia, after the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) convicted him on the basis of a false confession extracted through torture. Mr al-Hawaj was 17 when he was arrested in the wake of protests and tortured by Saudi security forces. He is the latest in a series of juveniles to be told that their executions are imminent after they received death sentences for protest-related offences at the SCC.

The SCC’s judges have repeatedly sentenced peaceful protesters to death in secret hearings, on the basis of false confessions extracted through torture. Several protesters have already been executed after SCC trials in the Kingdom, including at least one juvenile.

In Bahrain, police have repeatedly targeted attendees at nonviolent political demonstrations, and then tortured them into making false confessions to violent acts. Bahrain’s Chief Prosecutor has overseen the use of the statements to secure death sentences against torture victims, three of whom were executed early this year. Several more people arrested in the wake of protests face imminent execution on the basis of forced statements, including father of three Mohamed Ramadhan.

In Egypt, thousands of protesters, journalists, and others are held in poor prison conditions. The UN Committee Against Torture recently concluded in its 2017 report that “torture is a systematic practice” in the country. Among those being held is Irish student, Ibrahim Halawa, who was arrested aged 17. Ibrahim faces the death penalty on protest-related charges in a mass trial alongside 493 co-defendants. He has reported regular torture in Egyptian prisons.

Maya Foa, Director of Reprieve, said:

“The officials named in this letter are accused of grotesque rights abuses that fly in the face of American values – from torture and forced ‘confessions’ to executions of children and the use of the death penalty to suppress free speech. This Act gives President Trump a smart way to target the worst abusers – including the Saudi judges that passed death sentences to young protesters like Abdulkarim al-Hawaj, who face imminent execution. The White House must use these powers to hold to account the individuals responsible for gross human rights abuses, and to save the lives of innocent young people like Abdulkarim.”


Notes to Editors:

1. Reprieve is an international human rights organisation. Reprieve’s London office can be contacted on:, or +44 (0)20 7553 8140.

2. The NGOs’ joint letter to the US State Department and the US Treasury can be seen here.