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British MPs warn of 'disaster' for Saudi Arabia as they push to meet detainees

A panel of parliamentarians and lawyers has pushed to meet with jailed women's rights activists to assess reports of their mistreatment
Loujain Alhathloul and her partner Fahad Albutairi (Instagram/loujainhathloul)
By in
London

British MPs have warned "disaster" faces Saudi Arabia if it fails to allow scrutiny of its internal practices, as a cross-party group continues to push for the kingdom to allow them access to detained activists to assess allegations of torture and mistreatment.

In a press briefing in London on Thursday, the Detention Review Panel again called on Saudi Arabia to respond to a request to allow the panel to meet with women's rights activists imprisoned in the kingdom.

In a 2 January letter to the Saudi ambassador in London, Prince Mohammed bin Nawwaf bin Abdulaziz, the DRP requested that the panel be given access to women's right activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al‐Yousef, Eman al‐Nafjan, Nouf Abdelaziz, Mayaa al‐Zahrani, Samar Badawi, Nassima al‐Saada, and Hatoon al‐Fassi.

The DRP also asked to meet detained male supporters of the eight women including lawyer Ibrahim al‐Modaimeegh, philanthropist Abdulaziz Meshaal, and activist Mohammed Rabea.

"The total result would be that the Saudis engage with us, they let us go and see the people we’ve listed and we can get first-hand accounts of their detention conditions," said Crispin Blunt, the chair of the panel and a Conservative MP, speaking to Middle East Eye.

"If the reports on their mistreatment are true, it’s then also true that the Saudi prosecuting authorities are investigating these allegations of mistreatment and putting them right."

'The Saudi government seems to think it can kill and torture with impunity, not just within its borders, but outside its borders'

- Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch

He emphasised, however, that the panel - which also includes Labour MP Paul Williams, Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, ITN solicitors and barrister Tim Moloney - was “not seeking to conduct a review of the entire Saudi justice system”.

It was, he said, focusing on the allegations of mistreatment, rather than whether they had been subjected to a miscarriage of justice.

He said the aim of the panel was a "narrow focus on named individuals and what has happened to them".

“I think the Kingdom’s under enormous pressure and I think there’s a serious reassessment going on about the consequences of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the direction of policy and if they intend to continue down the route that they appear to be on in terms of internal repression then down that route will lie disaster," he said.

'Tortured her all night'

The kingdom conducted a sweeping crackdown of female activists In May 2018, shortly before it was publicly announced that the longstanding ban on women driving would be lifted.

Many of those arrested had been involved in the campaign to have the ban lifted. Human rights organisations have reported that, while in prison, the women faced repeated torture and abuse.

Writing in the New York Times on 13 January, Alia al-Hathloul, sister of Loujain al-Hathloul, said that her sister had "been held in solitary confinement, beaten, waterboarded, given electric shocks, sexually harassed and threatened with rape and murder."

She said that Saud al-Qahtani, a former top royal adviser directly implicated in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October, had been present during the abuse and had "tortured her all night during Ramadan".

Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division, told MEE that there needed to be checks on Saudi Arabia's behaviour.

“The Saudi government seems to think it can kill and torture with impunity, not just within its borders, but outside its borders," she said.

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"[The DRP] is one of the few pieces of leverage we have to make the Saudi government understand that their behaviour is begin noticed, monitored and reviewed and will have repercussions in terms of their relations with allied governments."

So far the Saudi government has not responded to the DRP's request, and the original deadline of 9 January to respond to the initial letter has passed.

Blunt said that even in the case they were denied access, a report would still be produced using open source information.

“If they don’t we can only report on the basis of the evidence that’s publicly available to us outside Saudi Arabia and that’s what we will do," he said.

He said that the current period was crucial for the kingdom and warned its international reputation was facing a serious crisis. He added that it was time for Saudi Arabia to decide whether it wished to be an absolute monarchy or a "consultative" monarchy.