DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Saudi Arabia's Cabinet approved on Monday a new anti-terrorism draft law that criminalizes acts that disturb public order, defame the reputation of the state or threaten the kingdom's unity, raising concerns by activists it could be used to quash political dissent.
A rights activist and a rights lawyer denounced the law as too broad, saying that besides terrorists, it targets civil society activists calling for democratic reforms. They spoke anonymously for fear of retribution.
State-owned Saudi media released details of the law online after the Cabinet meeting, but the news outlets focused headlines on Cabinet decisions to increase government spending. News of the anti-terror law and its approval was marginalized.
Al-Riyadh Net news website said the law was proposed by the Interior Ministry and reviewed by the advisory Shura Council. It reported that King Abdullah is preparing to issue a decree putting the law into effect.
The Cabinet statement, carried by state media outlets, says the law will strike a balance between the risks of terrorist crimes and the protection of human rights. The statement then describes crimes of terrorism to include "disturbing public order, or undermining the security and stability of the nation, or exposing the nation's unity to danger... or defaming the reputation of the state or its position."
In the past, Saudi women who got behind the wheel of a car were accused of disturbing public order for defying a driving ban imposed on females. One Saudi activist said this means women drivers can be tried under the anti-terror law, for example.
Activists told The Associated Press the law was first drafted under the late Prince Nayef in 2011 when he was Interior Minister before his death a year later. A group of well-organized human rights campaigners in the kingdom were leaked a copy of the draft law and took to the Internet and social media to blast its broad wording. They also called on the prince to be removed from the line of succession for his role in overseeing torture and abuse of prisoners in Saudi jails. The law was quickly shelved at the time.
Since then, at least 12 activists from that group known as the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association have been arrested. This year, the group's top leaders Abdullah al-Hamid and Mohammed al-Qahtani, were sentenced up to 11 years in prison and slapped with lengthy travel bans after their release.
The Saudi Council of Ministers is comprised of nearly two dozen members all appointed by King Abdullah. The meeting Monday was chaired by his likely successor, Crown Prince Salman, who is also deputy premier and the defense minister.