HRW asks Saudi Arabia to allow access to jailed women activists

Saudi Arabia should immediately allow independent international monitors to access Saudi women’s rights advocates detained since May 2018 to ensure their safety and well-being, Human Rights Watch said on December 6, 2018.

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HRW, (Beirut) – On November 23, Saudi Arabia’s media ministry denied evidence published by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that Saudi authorities had tortured and sexually harassed and assaulted at least three detained activists. On November 28, Human Rights Watch received a report from an informed source indicating that Saudi authorities had tortured a fourth woman activist. Sources said the torture of Saudi women activists may be ongoing. Saudi Arabia should immediately and credibly investigate the allegations of abuse in detention, hold accountable any individuals found complicit in torture and mistreatment of detainees, and provide redress for activists abused during this prolonged pretrial detention.

“Saudi Arabia’s consistent lies about senior officials’ role in Jamal Khashoggi’s murder mean that the government’s denials that it tortured these women activists are not nearly good enough,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Unless independent monitors are able to confirm the women activists’ well-being, there is every reason to believe that the Saudi authorities have treated them with unspeakable cruelty.”

The sources for the allegations of torture were concerned that they and the activists would suffer reprisals if the women were identified publicly. Media outlets including The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal also reported the torture allegations. 

Saudi authorities should also allow the detained women unfettered access to lawyers and family members and release all of those jailed solely for peacefully advocating reform. 

The new source indicated that authorities tortured the fourth activist with electric shocks and tied them down to a steel bed and whipped them with an “egal,” the black cord used in traditional dress by Arab men to keep their head covering in place. The source said that the fourth activist was also sexually harassed. 

All the women activists are in Dhahban Mabahith (intelligence) Prison north of Jeddah, but sources described most of the torture as taking place at an unofficial detention facility they called a “hotel” prior to moving the women to Dhahban in August. The new source indicated that the women are taken to a room called an “officer’s guesthouse” for torture, but the location of this room is unclear.

The new source also told Human Rights Watch that the men responsible for mistreating the women were from “cyber security,” a probable reference to officers working under the authority of the former royal court adviser Saud al-Qahtani, who was fired, according to a royal decree, for his role in the Khashoggi murder plot. Al-Qahtani, who was known as Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s enforcer, previously served as head of the royal court’s Center for Studies and Media Affairs, as well as the Saudi Union for Cyber Security and Programming. According to media reports, al-Qahtani directed online campaigns against Saudi critics, and developed a “black list” of critics to target. He is known in diplomatic circles as the “prince of darkness.” 

According to multiple informed sources, Saudi interrogators tortured the women during the initial stages of interrogation, primarily between May and August 2018. The torture included electric shocks and whippings. 

At least three women were subjected to sexual harassment and assault, including forced hugging and kissing and exposure to sexually suggestive gestures. One source said that one of the detained women’s rights advocates said that a senior official attended several of her torture sessions wearing a mask. According to the source, he told her during an interrogation “the next electrocution will be on your head” and threatened to rape her but did not carry out the threat. He also asked her whether she preferred the death penalty or life in prison for her “treason.” 

One source said that interrogators attempted to terrify and intimidate one of the detained women by telling her that they had murdered one of her colleagues in detention. At least one of the women attempted suicide multiple times, the sources said.

Following the interrogations, sources said, the women showed physical signs of torture, including difficulty walking, uncontrolled shaking of the hands, bruises on their thighs, and red marks and scratches on their faces and necks. 

The sources said that members of Saudi Arabia’s governmental Human Rights Commission (HRC) visited the women in detention at Dhahban. One of the women told the HRC that the women were tortured at another site and submitted to them all the details of their treatment. The HRC indicated to her that they did not know about the other site. A source told Human Rights Watch that another activist told a HRC representative everything that had h

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