European Court grants Saudi Arabia immunity for torture

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

On 14 January 2014, the European Court of Human Rights rejected arguments from four British applicants that Saudi Arabia should be brought to face allegations of torture in court.

The case concerned four British applicants, who brought proceedings against Saudi Arabia`s Ministry of Interior and its officials, claiming that they have been tortured or otherwise ill-treated while being held in police custody in 2000.

Ron Jones alleged that after being held in solitary confinement by Saudi police, he was beaten repeatedly on the soles of his feet and hung from the ceiling. The other three claimants alleged similar counts of torture by Saudi police.

Their statements were supported by medical reports of the sustained injuries.

The civil complaints were however dismissed, based on the UK State Immunity Act of 1978, which granted Saudi Arabia and its officials, immunity from prosecution. The House of Lords found that neither Saudi Arabia, nor Ministry of Interior`s officials should be examined before a court, relying on principles of State immunity in international law. The applicants lodged applications to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that their right to access to court (article 6 (1)) has been violated.

In the judgement (which is not final), the European Court confirmed its earlier practice, where it clearly stated that immunity was granted to States alleged of committing torture in civil proceedings, in respect of general principles of international law, promoting good relations and comity between States. The Court examined whether there has been evolution in international standards of State immunity when allegations of torture existed, but it relied on the recent decision of Germany v. Italy, in which the International Court of Justice confirmed that no such evolution has taken place for the time being. In consistency with the State immunity principle, the immunity extends to State officials as well. In the Court`s view, an act committed by State officials in their full official capacity, can only be considered as attributable to the State. Officials would therefore not incur civil liability for committing acts of torture in their official capacity.

Several leading human rights organisations intervened in the case, elaborating why a direct violation of article 6 (the right to access to court) should be found. In their comments, they insist on a special status of the prohibition of torture in international law, where the positive obligation of the states to provide for an effective remedy to victims of torture must not be neglected. The most important such remedy would, of course, be the right to access to court. 

Human rights organisations have expressed their regrets following the decision of the Court. To avoid impunity on acts of torture and incapability to offer redress to victims, the restriction on access to court cannot be seen as a proportionate or justified measure.