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U.S.: Impose Magnitsky Sanctions on Head of Saudi Counterterrorism Court Awadh al-Ahmari for Gross Human Rights Abuses


April 3, 2024

Credits @FFHR.CZ

Al-Ahmari Helped Cover Up Khashoggi Murder, Sentenced Brother of Exiled Saudi Cleric to Death, and Complicit in Torture of Activists

(Washington D.C., April 2, 2024) – The United States Department of Treasury should sanction Awadh al-Ahmari, the Head of the Saudi Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), for his role in gross human rights abuses, including the torture and brutal suppression of dissidents within Saudi Arabia and transnationally, said DAWN today in a submission under the Global Magnitsky Act.

DAWN's submission details how al-Ahmari helped cover up the 2018 murder of DAWN's founder and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, concealing evidence from the Turkish authorities and helping exonerate Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and other high-level Saudi officials. The submission also provides evidence of al-Ahmari's role in the torture, extraction of forced confessions, and detention of peaceful activists during his work as an investigator at the State Security Circuit in the Public Prosecution Office from 2010 to 2022. Finally, DAWN's submission documents how Al-Ahmari, in his current role as the Head of the SCC, has sentenced to death Mohammed al-Ghamdi in an effort to punish  Saudi dissident cleric Dr. Saied al-Ghamdi, who is in self-exile in the UK.

"Al-Ahmari has a long and heinous record of gross human rights abuses, including not only torture and forced confessions, but even sentencing an innocent man to death to get at his dissident brother abroad, and is exactly the type of abusive official the Magnitsky Sanctions were created to punish," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director at DAWN.

"Sanctioning Al-Ahmari would send a strong message that the U.S. government doesn't single out officials of political enemies, but applies its law consistently to officials of allied governments as well." 

Cover-Up of Khashoggi Murder

DAWN's submission details al-Ahmari's role in the Saudi cover-up of Khashoggi's murder, as he accompanied the Saudi Attorney General to Istanbul and helped lead the investigation that sought to obfuscate and avoid implicating MBS; U.S. intelligence reports concluded MBS had ordered the murder, and UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard documented his exact role in supervising the crime. The investigation led by al-Ahmari also exonerated other high-level Saudi officials, such as Saud al-Qahtani, though the US government and other governments sanctioned him for his role in Khashoggi's murder.

Specifically, Al-Ahmari participated in the Saudi government cover-up of the crime scene at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, during which the Saudi team thoroughly and forensically cleaned the crimes scenes before allowing Turkish investigators to have limited access and prevented them from draining a well located in the Consular's residence where investigators believe the perpetrators hid Khashoggi's remains. Al-Ahmari and the team also refused to share evidence with the Turkish authorities, including testimonies of members of the Saudi hit team; prevented Turkish authorities from interrogating the suspects implicated in the crime; and provided false information to the public about what had transpired, including that Khashoggi had left the Consulate, that the killing was an accident, and that it was carried out by rogue elements.  

Torture, extraction of forced confessions, and detention of peaceful activists 

Al-Ahmari previously served as a detective in the State Security Circuit within the Public Prosecution Office from 2010 to 2022, where he was complicit in the torture, extraction of forced confessions, and detention of peaceful activists in Saudi Arabia, according to anonymous sources interviewed by DAWN in September and October 2022. 

One source close to a prominent Saudi human rights defender, whom DAWN is not naming to protect them from government retaliation, told DAWN on September 7, 2022 that al-Ahmari interrogated their family members in 2013 about their peaceful activism and extracted forced confessions from them. As a result, the activist was sentenced to very long imprisonment and suffered permanent damage to his body. 

Another source, a prisoner of conscience whom DAWN is also not naming for safety reasons, told DAWN on October 12, 2022 that al-Ahmari interrogated him in 2014 about videos he posted to YouTube and forced him to sign a confession that he was an "extremist" and "terrorist." When the prisoner retracted his confession in court, he said that al-Ahmari locked him in solitary confinement for months, a form of torture, until he confessed again under threats from al-Ahmari. He said that al-Ahmari dictated his confession verbatim and then coerced him to sign it. As a result, he was sentenced to and served years in prison.

Retaliatory Death Sentence Against Brother of Saudi Activist

In his current role as Head of the SCC, Al-Ahmari has continued to be involved in the extraterritorial repression of peaceful Saudi activists. A royal decree by MBS appointed al-Ahmari, his close adviser, as Head of the SCC on June 9, 2022, despite al-Ahmari's lack of qualifications and judicial training. On May 28, 2023, al-Ahmari, who heads the terrorism court and supervises its judges, assigned the case of Mohammed al-Ghamdi, the brother of Saudi dissident cleric in self-exile in the UK, Dr. Saied al-Ghamdi, to three unnamed SCC judges. On July 10, 2023, the SCC sentenced al-Ghamdi to death  for a list of offenses including "renouncing allegiance to the guardians of the state"; "supporting a terrorist ideology and a terrorist entity (the Muslim Brotherhood)"; "using his accounts on Twitter and YouTube to follow and promote individuals who seek to destabilize public order"; and "sympathizing with individuals detained on terrorism-related charges." 

The only evidence for all of these charges came from a handful of tweets that al-Ghamdi had posted through an anonymous Twitter (X) account, which had less than ten followers. Peaceful tweets that do not incite hatred or violence are not violent acts, should not fall under the jurisdiction of the SCC, which is a specialized court limited in jurisdiction to security and terrorism offenses, and should not be punished by death as they are not considered major crimes. 

According to Dr. al-Ghamdi, the sentence against his brother was a retaliatory punishment against him due to his peaceful dissident activism in exile in the UK. As head of the SCC, al-Ahmari reviewed and approved al-Ghamdi's death sentence, as he is required to do in all cases where defendants are accused of crimes punishable by death or are sentenced to death by the court. 

Executive Order 13818, signed by former U.S. President Trump in December 2017, provides for the sanction of individuals who are "leaders or officials" of governmental entities engaged in serious human rights abuses "relating to the leader's or official's tenure."

Section 7031(c) provides for the sanction of individuals who are involved in gross violations of human rights both "directly and indirectly." Al-Ahmari has held an official position as investigator in the Saudi public prosecution since 2010 and Head of the SCC since 2022. 

Due to the widespread and regular nature of al-Ahmari's abuses, and the fact that these incidents of torture, unfair trials, prolonged detention, death sentences, and cover up for murder have been well known and documented and have occurred repeatedly for a period of years, DAWN submits that al-Ahmari was knowingly complicit in, and knew or should have known, that the government entities he led, or their subordinates within those entities, have been engaged in, ongoing human rights abuses. Furthermore, al-Ahmari failed to take necessary measures to halt the abuses or to investigate them in a genuine effort to impose punishment on the perpetrators.



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