Top MBS aide reportedly oversaw torture of jailed female activist

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Saud al-Qahtani has been accused of overseeing torture of at least one female activist in Saudi detention facility, Reuters reported

Qahtani was reportedly sacked from his role in aftermath of Jamal Khashoggi's murder (AFP/File photo)
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A top aide to Saudi Arabia's crown prince has been accused of personally overseeing the torture of at least one detained female human rights activist earlier this year, Reuters reported on Thursday. 

Citing two sources with knowledge of the matter, Reuters said Saud al-Qahtani was present when at least one woman was tortured inside a Saudi detention facility.

A group of about six men subjected this woman, along with at least three others, to sexual harassment, electrocution and flogging between May and August "at an unofficial holding facility in Jeddah," Reuters said.

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Saudi human rights activists tortured, sexually harassed in prison: Amnesty

Saudi authorities say Qahtani, a royal adviser to Mohammed bin Salman, was sacked in October after he was accused of leading the Saudi team that murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

He was also among more than a dozen Saudi citizens sanctioned by the United States and Canada in relation to the killing of Khashoggi, a Saudi government critic and Washington Post columnist who was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October.

The group of men involved in the women's torture did not appear to be regular interrogators; they belonged to Saudi state security or the Saudi Federation for Cybersecurity, Programming and Drones, which Qahtani headed at the time, Reuters said.

The sources, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, told Reuters that Qahtani was in the room on several occasions when one of the four detainees was subjected to kissing, groping and electrocution. He made threats of rape and murder to the woman, the sources said.

Reuters said it was unable to reach Qahtani since he was sacked, but a Saudi official told the news agency that the allegations of mistreatment and torture of the female detainees were "false ... and have no connection to the truth".

"The detainees were detained based on accusations related to harming the security and stability of the kingdom," the official said in response to questions from Reuters.

Their legal rights are being respected and they are receiving medical and social care, family visits and have the right to an attorney, the official said.

Dozens of activists arrested since May

That's been disputed by Amnesty International, which reported last month that several detained Saudi human rights activists have been subjected to torture, sexual harassment and other inhumane treatment inside Dhahban prison in Jeddah.

Citing three separate testimonies, the human rights group said the activists, some of whom are women, were tortured by electrocution and flogging, which left "some unable to walk or stand properly".

The activists have been detained without charge since May, amid a wider crackdown Saudi Arabia launched against intellectuals, clerics and human rights defenders.

“Only a few weeks after the ruthless killing of Jamal Khashoggi, these shocking reports of torture, sexual harassment and other forms of ill-treatment, if verified, expose further outrageous human rights violations by the Saudi authorities,” Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty’s Middle East research director, said in a statement at the time.

Eleven women are still being held, activists say, including the four alleged to have been tortured, Reuters reported.

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

- Michael Page, Human Rights Watch

On Thursday, Human Rights Watch called on Saudi Arabia to allow international monitors to visit the human rights activists "to ensure their safety and well-being" in 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, HRW's deputy Middle East director, in a statement.

“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 torture allegations come as Saudi leaders are under pressure to account for Khashoggi's murder.

The CIA recently concluded that Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, bin Salman, ordered the killing, while US lawmakers have said they believe the crown prince, known as MBS, was complicit and should be held accountable.

Qahtani had been a top confidant and senior adviser to MBS and held vast influence in the crown prince's inner circle. He once said he would never do anything without his bosses' approval, referring to MBS and Saudi King Salman.

This week, the Turkish prosecutor's office issued arrest warrants for Qahtani and Saudi General Ahmed al-Asiri, amid "strong suspicion" they were among the planners of Khashoggi's killing. Asiri was also removed from his position following the murder.

"The prosecution's move to issue arrest warrants for Asiri and Qahtani reflects the view that the Saudi authorities won't take formal action against those individuals," one of the Turkish officials told Reuters.