The program – a key part of Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism campaign – relies on preventive efforts to teach detained men that terrorism is un-Islamic. But since most of the detainees haven't been convicted of any crime, it violates international law, the group argues in a report released Monday.
"Except as part of a sentence imposed after conviction for a crime, international human rights law does not permit the detention of persons to undergo a reeducation program," the report says. Such programs "cannot be forced upon persons whose guilt has not been established."
Rehab program praised by US
The program has drawn praise from US and Saudi officials who argue that conventional policing alone is insufficient to control Islamist militants.
While the program "may deserve credit for its intentions, innovations, and apparently low rate of acts of violence pursued by those released," Human Rights Watch says, those extolling it overlook that its enrollees "were not convicted criminals but rather men held in long-term detention without charge."
The report also says that the convictions of 330 Al Qaeda terror suspects announced by Saudi Arabia in July were "flawed" because the trials were held in secret. It criticizes the Saudi Interior Ministry for detaining thousands of suspects for years without charges, and in some cases, refusing to comply with court orders to release prisoners.
Gen. Mansour Turki, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said in an e-mail that he was unable to comment on the report until he had discussed it with ministry officials. An e-mail seeking comment to the Ministry of Justice spokesman went unanswered.
Indefinite detention is 'wrong'
Saudi human rights activist Mohammad Al Qahtani praised the report because "it documented the process of arresting people in indefinite detention." He disagreed with the protestation of a Saudi official quoted in the report, who said that public trials for terrorism suspects are unsuited to Saudi Arabia's tribal society.
"This is very wrong," said Mr. Qahtani. "A modern society should apply the law. This is an excuse to get away with illegal things. It doesn't make sense to hold secret tribunals."
The program has not been without its problems. In January of this year, Saudi Arabia disclosed that 11 graduates of the program, some of whom had previously been detained at the US prison camp in Guantánamo, Cuba, have been re-arrested for joining militant groups. Still, US Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair described the program in glowing terms in a memo to the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this year, calling it "the most comprehensive of its kind [designed] to address the religious, psychological, and socio-economic issues that contribute to radicalization."
The Human Rights Watch report follows a July 21 study by Amnesty International that alleged Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism campaign led to increased human rights violations.
One response to 2003 attacks
Saudi Arabia was rocked by a wave of violence from Al Qaeda extremists in 2003 and 2004 that left 74 security personnel and 90 civilians dead, according to Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, Saudi interior minister. Another 1,096 persons were injured.
The government responded with mass arrests. An unknown but large number of the 9,000 civilians detained since 2003 are still held, though Saudi law stipulates that six months is the longest a person can be jailed without charges. Some detainees are held even after the rehabilitation program or Saudi courts recommend their release.
The rehabilitation program began in 2004. Using psychological and religious counseling, it aims to convince prisoners to abandon what Saudi officials call the "deviant" or "misguided" beliefs that led them into extremist groups.
Saudi officials have said the program is voluntary but also acknowledge that completing it is a condition, though not a guarantee, for a prisoner's release.
Half-way house added
In 2007, a second component to the program was added with a half-way house to ease prisoners back into society. Of the 270 detainees who went through this part of the program, 117 were former inmates at the US-run Guantánamo Bay detention camp.
The latest Human Rights Watch report also criticizes the lack of information about the trials of 330 terror suspects. "The absence of public observers at these trials cast significant doubt on their fairness, underlined by indications that defendants do not have legal assistance and adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense," the report says.