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Confessions in Saudi vs US Criminal Justice Systems


Interrogations are a vital element of the criminal justice system. They are helpful for solving cases and bringing perpetrators to responsibility. However, not all professional policemen are able to collect enough evidence during interrogations and investigations. In this way, it is important to point to another critical element of the criminal justice system – confessions. The role of confessions differs across different types of crimes. For instance, it is of extreme importance for investigating some violent crimes. On the other hand, they are close to meaningless in some possession crimes, which can be solved by paying specific attention to evidence and testimonials. From this perspective, confession is one of the most significant moments in interrogations, which might either help to solve a case or turn it into unresolved.

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However, it is vital to keep in mind that in order to have regard to a confession, it is critical to make sure that it was a voluntary one. It can be easily explained by the fact that there are numerous ways to obtain an involuntary confession such as lies, threats, physical abuse, deprivations, blackmailing, bribery, etc. That is why involuntary confession cannot be considered a valid source of evidence taken into account by Courts. Still, it is critical to note that sometimes it is impossible to determine the nature of confessions, which are presented as evidence during court hearings. That is why developing a comprehensive legal framework for regulating potential risk areas related to confessions is the greatest priority of any legal system.

Due to the criticality of the mentioned problem, different countries view it from different perspectives and develop different laws, which are suitable for their social and legal environments. Therefore, the paper at hand aims at investigating issues related to confessions in Saudi Arabia and the US criminal justice systems. Specific attention will be paid voluntariness of confessions, as it is the only evidence, which is believed to be valid. This paper will not only study specificities of voluntariness of confessions in two legal systems but also make an attempt to draw the lines between the two, determining which one is more efficient and hypothesize on the ways to improve them. Both systems will be reviewed in terms of major laws or legal cases in order to guarantee the accuracy of assumptions.

In Saudi Arabia, peculiarities of criminal procedures are determined by the Saudi Arabia Law of Criminal Procedure. According to it, all Courts are managed by applying the Sharia principles, which come directly from Quran1. In addition, no measures of interrogations, investigations, or perpetrator treatment, which do not correspond with the Sharia principles, are allowable and justifiable. From this perspective, legal proceedings are interwoven with religious life, just like any other sphere of human life and interactions.

As for the US criminal justice system, it is a comprehensive system, which operates based on numerous sources of law. The US Constitution and Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments make up the foundation of the whole system2. It is supplemented by Federal statutes and rules and a number of cases on related issues. In terms of this research, the focus will be made of Federal cases, as they are specialized and address issues related to confessions, which are of significant interest to this research.

Voluntariness of Confessions in Interrogations in Saudi Arabia System

As mentioned above, in Saudi Arabia, the criminal justice system is based on the principles of Sharia, which makes it directly connected to religion3. In the same law, it is clearly stated that interrogations should be organized and held in a way to avoid influencing the will of an individual under the investigator. It is determined in order to guarantee that an accused person makes any oaths concerning a committed crime, which distorts reality or drives the justice machine in the wrong direction4. From this perspective, the system implemented in Saudi Arabia is, in essence one, which promotes voluntariness. However, the mentioned law does not focus on details on the issue of confessions. It is only stated that an accused individual has the right to confess in their deeds at any stage of the investigation. Nevertheless, it does not necessarily mean that the Court solves a case under investigation right away, as interrogations and investigation processes might continue if the Court believes that the confessions were not true or did not serve as a true evidence5. It means that a voluntary confession of the accused person is not the guarantee for closing the case, and other witnesses might still be interrogated6.

When investigating the voluntariness of confessions in Saudi Arabia, it is critical to point to the fact that, in most cases, provisions mentioned above are not related to the real-world issues. In practice, the system is cruel and far from the Sharia principles or religiosity. Even though there are many instances of cases, which were solved and closed once a voluntary confession was obtained, later, it turned out that similar confessions rarely were voluntary, and those under interrogation experienced violence.

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One of the appropriate examples is the case of Ahmed Omar Abu Ali – an American Students, who attended the University of Saudi Arabia and was arrested during Riyadh terrorist bombings, as he was suspected of belonging to Al-Qaeda and organizing bombings7. Once he confessed that he was one of the members of the mentioned terrorist organization and was involved in preparing and directing the attack, it was claimed numerous times that his confession was a voluntary one8. These claims were made by the Saudi Arabia government. Nevertheless, later Abu Ali claimed that Saudi officials conducted one interrogation cycle after another thus forcing him to confess in what he was not actually involved in9. Except for repeated interrogations, he was physically tortured and abused, so that confession was the most appropriate option for him10.

Because Abu Ali was the American student, Saudi officials allowed the US representatives to be present at one of the interrogation cycles. During this session, the accused was asked questions drafted by the American officials. As Abu Ali videotaped his confession, the most surprising part about them was that he confessed in an attempt to assassinate President Bush11. Even though at least nine American citizens were killed during the terrorist attack, Bush was in the United States at that time. Because of it, Abu Ali’s family filed a petition that it was the American side that wanted their son to confess in this crime and that it was the American side that tortured him12.

Even though the accused was sentenced to life term, as it was impossible to win the case against the American side, this story is interesting not in terms of the American criminal proceedings system. Instead, it is of specific interest because it reveals a significant gap in the legal system, which operates in Saudi Arabia. In fact, Saudi officials were governed by the United States, as they conducted interrogations against the American student. In this case, it is logical to question the decision of the Saudi official to investigate the problem, following local legislation. Of course, the option of sending Abu Ali to the US for trial was unacceptable because Saudi Arabia citizens were killed as well. However, following orders of the US system inside the local one had a significant influence on the international image of Saudi Arabia and contributed to the belief that its criminal proceedings system is imperfect and laws are nominal.

That said, review of voluntariness of confessions in interrogations in Saudi Arabia revealed several imperfections of the existing system. First and foremost, there are no clearly determined legal frameworks, which would determine the specificities of confessions. They are briefly mentioned in one article of the central law regulating criminal proceedings. At the same time, voluntariness of confessions is always put at question. So, there is no confidence in the operating system and its efficiency. At the same time, regardless of the religious background of the system, human rights are not respected and cruelty is seen as a common element of the procedures13. Finally, the system requires a lot of work in order to fill existing gaps and make it operational. Some recommendations for improving the effectiveness of the current Saudi Arabia system will be provided later in when the two systems will be compared.

Voluntariness of Confessions in Interrogations in the US System

In the United States, the criminal proceedings system operated under different legal acts and regulations. However, there are still challenges when it comes to identifying whether a gained confession was a voluntary one. Nowadays, there are tow commonly ways used for turning any involuntary confession in a voluntary one. Here, it is essential to clarify that a voluntary confession is one gained without affecting the will of an individual, who undergoes interrogation. Nevertheless, in the US system, there are two strategies for coercing voluntariness of confessions in interrogations.

The first approach is referred to as shocking the conscience. In terms of the operating legal system, it comes down to blurring the lines between provisions of the existing legislation14. Due to significant quantity of legal acts, which regulate this area of interactions, this strategy is possible to bring to life and violate the voluntariness test, which is common in this country.

The second trick is known as joint venture. In similar cases, the state does not eliminate the opportunity of creating joint groups fro interrogations. They might be designed in order to satisfy both state-federal model and international one15. Both strategies are commonly used for interrogating foreign citizens or agents, which is prohibited by the American system. However, these strategies point to the gaps, which might be used for ignoring current legislation and proving that a confession was a voluntary one even in cases when getting one is illegal.

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Physical Abuse and Deprivations

Physical abuse and deprivations were common challenges in the US system as around some hundred years ago, choosing physical violence as a tool for gaining confessions. However, in 1931, the National Commission of Law Observance and enforcement concluded that it is a widespread problem of the US system. The commission issued what is known as the third degree practice. According to this strategy, confessions are gained by causing mental or physical pain. As for physical pain, policemen had different options from mild tortures to leaving visual scars16. It was spread across the country, as policemen of almost a half of the states used mental and physical pain for collecting confessions17. This problem is closely connected to the case, which will be reviewed below.

Case: Ed Brown v. Mississippi, 297 US 278 (1936).

Parties: Court of the State of Mississippi against Ed Brown, Henry Shields, and Yank Ellington (defendants).

Facts: The three men mentioned above (Brown, Shields, and Ellington) were accused of killing Raymond Stewart. They were found guilty because they confessed that murdered Stewart. The Court sentenced them to death penalty due to the severity of their crime and confession. However, no other evidence was found. The appellation was filed because all three men reported that their confessions were gained through applying physical violence.

Issue: To find out whether the confessions were gained by physical brutality and violated the procedures, identified by the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution.

Holding: Yes. The confessions were gained by applying excess physical brutality to defendants. That is why they cannot be used as evidence, as it violates the process identified by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Rule: The Court addressed the following cases in order to reason its holding: Twining v. New Jersey, 211 US 78 (1908), Mooney v. Holohan, 294 US 103 (1935), and Moore v. Dempsey, 261 US 86 (1923)18.

Reasoning: First, self-incrimination should be withdrawn, as the US Constitution does not protect exemption to it. Moreover, the correct trial process was not followed, as confessions gained by physical violence and brutality. Finally, the Court knew that there was no enough evidence to pass a sentence upon three suspects, as coerced confessions are a vague ground for solving the case19.

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This case became the ground for coping with the problem of using physical brutality for gaining confessions. Even though nowadays some aspects of physical coercion are still applied, the most severe ones such as punching and leaving scars were eliminated. These days, food and sleep deprivation are still common, but they are not frequent and controlled in time. Moreover, it is guaranteed that accused under interrogation are provided with food and beverages. However, not providing them with cigarettes cannot be referred to as deprivation20.

Promises and Threats

Promises and threats are some more common challenges, which are faced during making attempts to gain confessions. In this case, interrogators foster effort to persuade an accused individual to change their will and make confessions. These attempts might be either promises or threats21.

Case: State v. Jami Del Swanigan, 88,347, 80 P.3d 1201 (Kan. App. 2003).

Parties: State of Kansas – appellee; Jami Del Swanigan – appellant.

Facts: The Kwik Shop was robbed. It was an armed robbery. Surveillance cameras captured a car, which was as well noticed by a woman and a man, and two pictures of a robber. Once a suspect was found, he was invited to a police department to answer several questions about this and similar robberies in Salina. The lead investigator found out information regarding one more suspect by lying to the first one. He did the same thing during interrogating the second suspect. Swanigan, the first suspect, was found guilty of aggravated robbery based on his confession, as he thought that his fingerprints were found at the store. Even though the Court found that the fingerprints belonged to someone else, the Court sentenced him to 88 months in jail once he wanted to suppress his statements because of misinforming policemen during the interrogation and his criminal experience.

Issue: To find out whether the Court was wrong to deny Swanigan’s suppression and failing to provide the jury with information about truth and voluntariness of his statements?

Holding: The Court denied suppression. As for the second issue, it was stopped. The Court held that unreasonable suspicion could not be used as a threat for gaining suspect’s confession22.

Rule: State v. Banks, 927 P.2d 456 (Kan. 1996)23.

Reasoning: Both holdings were motivated by the fact that officers did not have a reasonable suspicion of threatening Swanigan.

This case was beneficial for the overall development of the perception of voluntary confessions. Nevertheless, it pointed out that police promises and making attempts to prove causality do not necessarily lead to admissible confession. Moreover, innocent people never confess in committing crimes.

Police Lies

Police lies is a final trick to gain confession. In these situations, policemen use facts they already obtained during an investigation to add new details to the story and force a suspect to confess.

Case: People v. Adrian Thomas, 93 AD3d 1019 (2012).

Parties: The state of New York against Adrian Thomas (defendant).

Facts: Adrian Thomas was found guilty in murdering his son because he confessed in committing this crime. Nevertheless, during the autopsy, it was discovered that the cause of death was infection. So, Thomas was not related to his son’s death. Thomas confessed because policemen hid some facts and made interrogations too long lasting and emotionally burdensome.

Issue: Should the Court admit Thomas’ testimony?

Rule: Rogers v. Richmond, 365 U.S. 534 (1961)24.

Holding: No, the Court should not admit Thomas’ testimony because he did not know all the facts. In similar cases, new trial is requested.

Reasoning: Thomas’ confession was coerced and involuntary because policemen did not reveal details about his son’s death, i.e. distorted the situation.

Based on this case, it was concluded that even though all Courts acknowledge that police lies lead to coerced and involuntary confessions, sometimes they are still admissible due to the totality of facts25. Here, it is essential to note that police lies are not always connected to adding or hiding details related to the story. Sometimes, it might include even new people and lying to a suspect’s friends and family in order to obtain confession. Finally, there is a strategy referred to as false friends. In this case, an emphasis is made on gaining confession by pointing to suspect’s feelings for a friend or family member, thus saving them from problem or turning them into criminals.

Comparing Two Systems

Investigating the specificities of the US and Saudi Arabia criminal proceedings systems, it is easy to speculate on the efficiency of both. Nowadays, the American system is indeed better compared to that, which operates in Saudi Arabia. However, this statement is made only based on theoretical and legal underpinnings of the two systems. In case of studying the system of Saudi Arabia, it is challenging to obtain an in-depth understanding of the whole mechanism due to the lack of facts and details in legal proceeding and the country’s central law, which regulates criminal justice system. On the other hand, in case of the US system, it is clear what laws regulate this sphere of social interactions and what precedents can be applied to solving a particular problem.

However, at the same time, this oversaturation with details is one of the negative aspects of the American criminal proceedings system. It can be easily explained by the fact that there are numerous gaps and inconsistencies in these references from one source to another. Moreover, as it was stated above, these gaps are commonly used by the state in order to gain confessions and represent involuntary testimonies as voluntary ones in the Courts. It is critical to note that if the state deploys this trick, criminals might as well choose to select it in order to benefit their illegal activities. It might potentially undermine the effectiveness of strategies aimed at decreasing crime rates due to the fact that because of the existing gaps, illegal activities might be represented as legal ones.

Nevertheless, there are some recommendations for improving the systems of both the United States of America and Saudi Arabia. In case of the US, it is essential to review the number of cases, which regulate this area of social interaction. Of course, this recommendation does not point to the necessity of reviewing the whole judiciary system, as the foundation on precedents is one of its primary specificities. The idea is to pay specific attention to voluntariness of confessions and partition the spheres of influence of particular provisions. For instance, even though joint ventures and shocking the conscience are beneficial for law enforcement agencies, it distorts the very concept of voluntariness and fosters the transformation of confessions into coerced once.

As for the system of criminal proceedings, which currently operates in Saudi Arabia, it is critical to focus on improving it. An emphasis should be made on making it comprehensive and detailed. At the same time, it is essential to work on fostering independence of the operating system in order to avoid cases, which affect the international perception of Saudi Arabia negatively and represent it as a country with inefficient criminal proceeding system. In order to achieve this goal, it is recommended to expand the legal base of the country, but still preserve its uniqueness – the Sharia principles as the foundation of the whole legal body.

Still, it is imperative to state that Saudi Arabia system has a significant advantaged compared to that implemented in the United States. As mentioned above, in Saudi Arabia, gaining confession is not synonymous with solving a case under investigation. It is another improvement, which should be incorporated in the American system. Potentially, it might be helpful for decreasing the rates of appellations, which are connected to voluntariness of confessions, as all testimonies are reviewed on a case-by-case basis and within the context of facts totality.


To sum up, it is imperative to state that voluntariness of confession in interrogations is the foundation of the efficient and operative legal system. The instances of Saudi Arabia and the United States of America pointed to the fact that comprehensiveness of the system defines chances for the system’s success as well as the perception of the operating system at both national and international levels. By this statement, it is meant that Saudi Arabia represented itself as the state, which might be driven by external officials, thus is dependent upon international community regardless of its uniqueness. Moreover, it proved that poor development and inadequate design of the system might lead to inner inconsistencies. That said, regardless of its religious background, cruelty and physical violence are common challenges faced by this legal body.

On the other hand, the US system revealed that the role of comprehensiveness and taking active steps for overcoming existing challenges should not be underestimated. The cases, which were reviewed during conducting the research are the proofs of this statement, as some hundred years ago, the problem of physical violence in the criminal proceedings system of the US was one of the most critical ones. Nevertheless, nowadays, this problem was successfully addressed and the system is constantly improving without regard to several abovementioned drawbacks.

So, the central conclusion of the paper is that in case of finding motivation to address existing disadvantages, experience of different countries might become one of the most valuable instruments for driving change. It means that both the United States and Saudi Arabia would benefit from reviewing the criminal proceedings of each other and finding some details, which would not only be beneficial for coping with existing problems but also preserve their specificities and turn them into the most significant advantages of the existing legal bodies.


  1. Law of Criminal Procedure, M/39 Saudi Arabia 1 (2001).
  2. Constitutional Criminal Procedure: Outlines and Case Summaries, at 12 (2010).
  3. Law of Criminal Procedure, M/39 Saudi Arabia 1 (2001).
  4. Id. 102.
  5. Id. 162.
  6. Id. 163.
  7. Wadie E. Said, Crimes of Terror: The Legal and Political Implications of Federal Terrorism Prosecutions, at 83.
  8. Id. at 129.
  9. United States v. Abu Ali, 395 F. Supp. 2d 338, 367–68 (2005).
  10. Julie C. Tiegel, Confessions in an International Age: Re-Examining Admissibility Through the Lens of Foreign Interrogations, MLR, 2016, at 296.
  11. Id.
  12. Id.
  13. Wadie E. Said, Crimes of Terror: The Legal and Political Implications of Federal Terrorism Prosecutions, at 86.
  14. Wadie E. Said, Coercing Voluntariness, ILR, 2010, at 9.
  15. Id. 11.
  16. Mark L. Miller & Ronald F. Wright, Criminal Procedures: The Police, 2015, at 506.
  17. Id.
  18. Ed Brown v. Mississippi, 297 US, 278 (1936).
  19. Id.
  20. Mark L. Miller & Ronald F. Wright, Criminal Procedures: The Police, 2015, at 511.
  21. Id. at 512.
  22. State v. Jami Del Swanigan, 88,347, 80 P.3d 1201 (Kan. App. 2003).
  23. Id.
  24. People v. Adrian Thomas, 93 AD3d 1019 (2012).
  25. Mark L. Miller & Ronald F. Wright, Criminal Procedures: The Police, 2015, at 525.

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