Criminal Complaint for Saudi Crimes Against Humanity in Belgium
On December 2, 2021, the Justice Initiative filed a complaint of crimes against humanity with the Belgian federal prosecutor under universal jurisdiction on behalf of Alia and Lina al-Hathloul for grave crimes committed against their sister Loujain al-Hathloul by the Saudi regime. The complaint also thoroughly documents the extent of crimes committed in Saudi Arabia against political dissidents since 2017.
Loujain al-Hathloul is a Saudi dissident and women's rights activist who garnered widespread attention for her opposition to Saudi Arabia’s prohibition on women’s ability to drive. She was arrested by Saudi authorities in May 2018. During her prolonged detention, she was kept in solitary confinement, including in a secret location, suffered enforced disappearance, and was repeatedly subjected to torture, including electric shocks, whippings and beatings, sexual assault, and threats of rape.
Loujain’s case is part of a systematic pattern of human rights violations by the Saudi regime under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Since being appointed in 2017, Prince Mohammed has overseen campaigns entailing mass arrests, torture, and enforced disappearances of anyone who dares voice dissent. This includes hundreds of human rights activists, writers, academics, and intellectual reformers, with some dissidents even killed because of their views.
Since Mohamed bin Salman was appointed Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia in 2017, he has orchestrated and overseen large waves of arrests of political dissidents and deployed systematic repression of anyone with a voice dissident to the regime or perceived as such.
Loujain al-Hathloul is one of the many who were targeted. Arbitrarily arrested on May 15, 2018, with no arrest warrant nor information about the charges brought against her, she was detained in a secret prison where she repeatedly suffered acts of torture and was held in solitary confinement for prolonged periods of time. She was also subject to enforced disappearance and persecution.
Al-Hathloul’s situation is illustrative of the systematic repression of political dissidents in Saudi Arabia. Since mid-2017, Mohammed Bin Salman has orchestrated several "purges" and repressive actions against individuals and groups who might limit his absolute power or raise a critical voice against his manner of governing. He has abusively arrested, detained, and tried hundreds of people, not for any criminal acts they may have committed, but for the peaceful exercise of their individual rights and liberties, including freedom of expression. These arrests and detentions are characterized by the same violations of fundamental rights, including a lack of information about the grounds for arrest and detention lasting several months without official notification of charges. Hundreds of people have been targeted, including journalists, academics, human rights activists, intellectual reformers, and even businessmen and members of the royal family.
A considerable number have also been subjected to enforced disappearance and imprisoned, including in unofficial locations, and to ill-treatment amounting to torture. Several persons have been killed, either as a direct result of murder or as a consequence of neglect in detention. The assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi on October 2, 2018, in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, revealed to the international community the brutality of the regime.
Finally, Saudi nationals in exile have been harassed, threatened, and even forced to return to their country, sometimes by being kidnapped.
Open Society Justice Initiative Involvement
The Open Society Justice Initiative has initiated, gathered documentation for, and drafted the complaint submitted before the federal prosecutor on behalf of Alia and Lina Al-Hathloul. Alia and Lina are represented in the proceedings by Maryse Alié, a lawyer at the Brussels Bar.
The systematic repression of political dissidents in Saudi Arabia, carried out through criminal acts that constitute grave human rights violations, amounts to crimes against humanity within the meaning of Article 136ter of the Belgian Criminal Code and Article 7 of the Rome Statute. To prove that a crime against humanity occurred requires the demonstration that a systematic attack was carried out against a civilian population; that criminal offenses listed in Article 136ter of the Criminal Code were carried out; and that perpetrators had knowledge of the attack: all elements present in this case.
A Systematic Attack Against a Civilian Population
According to the law, a systematic attack consists of a campaign or operation directed against a civilian population pursuant to or in furtherance of a state policy.
In Saudi Arabia, a multiplicity of criminal acts, including murders, enforced disappearances, arbitrary imprisonment and deprivation of liberty, torture, and persecution, have been committed since 2017 against a civilian population consisting of political dissidents. They have been targeted for publicly expressing disagreement with the political regime or expressing solidarity with those oppressed by it. The complaint lists hundreds of them.
This attack is systematic: the acts of violence were committed in an organized and repeated manner with the aim to silence Saudi dissidents. These are not random acts, but crimes resulting from a state policy decided upon and carried out at the highest level of the government. In June 2017, the Saudi royal family took control of all security, surveillance, and prosecution services; multiple victims were targeted by acts of repression that reached all segments of society; and new forms of repression were carried out, including the torture of women.
The Commission of Criminal Offences
Since at least June 2017, when Mohammed bin Salman was appointed crown prince, numerous offenses constituting crimes against humanity within the meaning of Article 136ter of the Belgian Criminal Code were committed against political dissidents, including:
- imprisonment and severe deprivation of liberty in violation of fundamental provisions of international law
- enforced disappearance
- acts of persecution
The complaint reports hundreds of these crimes, including against Loujain al-Hathloul, drawing from evidence and information gathered from UN bodies, human rights organizations, and media reports.
Knowledge of the Systematic Attack
Perpetrators of crimes against humanity must know that the conduct was part of or wanted to be part of the systematic attack against a civilian population. The complaint demonstrates that the crimes against humanity were committed by individuals who held positions of high responsibility in Saudi Arabia, including in the security, intelligence, and prosecution services. Given their position, these individuals necessarily were aware that the crimes committed were part of a systematic attack against political dissidents in Saudi Arabia.
Belgium’s Universal Jurisdiction Laws
Belgian judicial authorities can exercise jurisdiction over crimes against humanity committed abroad by non-Belgian nationals who are not to be found in Belgium if the victim is a Belgian national, a refugee living usually in Belgium, or a person who had legally lived in Belgium for at least three years at the time the crime was committed.
Both Alia and Lina al-Hathloul have lived in Belgium for more than 10 years. Lina al-Hathloul is also a Belgian national.
The federal prosecutor informs the plaintiffs that he will ask the Brussels court of appeal to dismiss the case.
The Justice Initiative files a complaint for crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Saudi regime with the federal prosecutor in Belgium on behalf of Alia and Lina al-Hathloul.
Justice Initiative Calls on Belgian Court to Reject Recommendation to Dismiss Case on Saudi Crackdown on Political Dissidents
The complaint is a first-of-its-kind legal filing to address the full scale of crimes committed by the Saudi regime against detractors since Mohammed bin Salman was appointed crown prince in 2017.
Universal Jurisdiction Law and Practice in Belgium
The principle of universal jurisdiction allows national courts to investigate and prosecute international crimes committed on foreign territory by foreign nationals. This briefing paper, available in English and French, provides an overview of the legal framework in Belgium on universal jurisdiction and was produced in partnership with TRIAL International.
Open Society Calls for Global Sanctions on Saudi Crown Prince after U.S. Intelligence Report on Khashoggi Murder
The Biden administration released an unclassified intelligence report showing who is responsible for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. The Justice Initiative is calling for accountability.