UN pushes for Saudi reforms

A UN envoy is urging the Saudi Arabian government to speed up an unprecedented yet tentative judicial reform process

Speaking after a week-long mission to Saudi Arabia, the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers Dato Param Cumara-swamy said the kingdom's legal system was improving following the introduction of a new criminal procedure code in May.

But he added: “I'm concerned about a lack of compliance with some international standards of due process, in particular with respect to the right of anyone deprived of their liberty by arrest or detention to be promptly brought before a court.”

He noted that the government was considering the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – but there was no firm commitment so far.

The UN official made a point of visiting four Britons held in connection with two bombings in Saudi Arabia, who all signed then withdrew confessions. Part of the reform process is to try to lessen the importance of confessions in the Saudi court system.

Despite “extensive discussions” on their case, a delegation representative said there had been no general dialogue on improving access to the criminal justice system for foreign lawyers, to which many Saudi judges are still resistant.

With no bar council or representative body, the Saudis have launched a five-year programme to register lawyers. Only 67 have signed up so far.