'Overwhelmed with fear': Saudi columnist details her detainment and escape
A prominent Saudi columnist has written an impassioned account of how she was forced to flee her country after being threatened with arbitrary detention and "psychological torture" by individuals connected to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Reem Sulaiman, who has written opinion pieces for the Mecca, Al-Wiam, and Anha newspapers, said an assistant to Saud al-Qahtani, one of the crown prince's top aides, told her to stop writing or face imprisonment and torture.
The order echoes the demand issued by Qahtani to Jamal Khashoggi before the journalist and Middle East Eye contributor was assassinated in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul three months ago.
In a series of posts to her 39,000 Twitter followers, Sulaiman said Saudi authorities questioned her about her articles, tweets and links to Saudi female activists, intellectuals and journalists.
She also alleged that Qahtani had attempted to get a false confession from her mother while Sulaiman was imprisoned.
Sulaiman, who has since sought asylum in the Netherlands, was detained for two full days and interrogated by Saudi officials.
Repression and mistreatment
Translation: I am Reem Sulaiman and have written for Mecca, al-Wiam and Anha'newspapers. I want to tell you about the repression and mistreatment I was subjected to, which led me to leave Saudi Arabia and come to the Netherlands as a refugee. Here are some of my articles:
Translation: The story began when I received a call from someone who said he was an assistant to Saud Al-Qahtani. He ordered me to stop writing in the newspapers and threatened that if I disobeyed this order I would bring a lot of hardship upon myself, the least of which may be prison. I tried to learn the reason for this but he replied angrily: “Just do what you are asked without discussion.”
Translation: I was shocked and overwhelmed with fear that I might be subjected to what others had faced. I had no option but to comply with their orders. I remained in a state of concern for a whole week before men who were armed to the teeth stormed my house and detained me.
Insults and psychological torture
Translation: They took me to an unknown location in Riyadh. There, the questioning, the insults and the psychological torture started and continued for two full days. They questioned me about the articles I published and the tweets I made. There was abuse and threats of torture.
Translation: Then they told me they would release me but that I would still be banned from writing. They warned me against telling anyone about what happened to me. I remained in this state of shock and fear for a while. Those were the hardest days of my life.
Translation: They left me with no choice but to escape from the country in pursuit of safety and breathing freely. So, I left for the Netherlands. Here I am living now as a refugee. Frankly, I feared that I would be subjected to what the detained women activists had been subjected to, such as torture, forced disappearance and even rape.
A country transformed
Translation: My heart is with my country. My heart is with my parents who might be harmed because I left the country and disclosed what happened to me. My heart is with the activists, men and women, who are unjustly imprisoned, tortured, molested and violated. It is regrettable that the country has been transformed by its ruler from a safe embrace for its sons and daughters into a fire of hell for them.
Translation: I do not want to be a source of misery for anyone. My heart is full of sorrow. What they have done to me and the psychological pressure and threats I have faced no woman can bear, not even a man can carry. I only say God is my best refuge and best support against whoever brought us to such a miserable condition.
Translation: What increases my pain and pains my heart is the fact that my friends turned against me just because I told the world what happened to me. A short while ago I learned that Anha newspaper, where I used to be published, has omitted all my articles. The following are old links to some of my articles in Anha:
Translation: I am a citizen who carries nothing in her hand apart from a pen. Writing is my entire life. It's where I address the concerns of the ordinary people and defend them. I was one of those who believed that we were living in a just state. It never occurred to me that I would be wronged until I went through this horrible ordeal. It was like a sword, shredding all my dreams. I left the country while my heart remained there, with the detained women, with my prisonmates.
Detained women activists
Translation: During the days I spent in detention, there appeared before me the images of all the detained women activists who were threatened with sexual molestation, lashed with a whip, given electric shocks and tortured to give false confessions. What I thought about most at the time was: will I endure or commit suicide. Yes, I did think about suicide more than once because of the horrors I saw.
Translation: In the place where I was detained, there were no women prison guards or supervisors. Neither were they men. They were a handful of males, semi-men who are not restrained from savagery and severe beatings; without humanity and with no consideration for a woman appealing for compassion. They were merciless, without morality or Islam or even the chivalry of the pre-Islamic era. They were beasts begotten by beasts.
Translation: Since the moment of my departure from my country, which has become a vast prison, I have documented every moment I went through, both visually and in writing. Then I returned with my memory to the dark days, the days of al-Qahtani and his henchmen, and I recorded them and documented them. I shall disclose all of this in a mini-documentary in collaboration with one of the TV channels, perhaps CNN or BBC. I have not decided which one yet.
Translation: What I had been through was extremely harsh to the extent that it left me with a compounded psychological crisis and a permanent injury in my left hand. Although I am safe now and am trying to the best of my ability to come out of the crisis, all that I had been through is nothing compared to what the women activists go through. They beat them mercilessly and assault them, especially poor Lujain [al-Hathloul]. They keep assaulting her, the dogs.
Translation: It’s OK to say that I am not a Saudi or a Hijazi or that I am a remnant of those who came from overseas or a remnant of the pilgrims. You said the same thing about Jamal Khashoggi. It used to sadden him to hear that. But I don’t care about those who are more significant than you, so would I care about you or about what you say?
Translation: The article that caused the disaster and piled the problems on my head and led the authorities to detain me was a call for rationalising the media discourse in the early days of the Gulf crisis when abuse and slander were on the rise. I published an article entitled: “The intellectual and the crisis between Saudi Arabia and Qatar”. Regrettably, the article seems to have been removed.
Translation: Just as they denied committing their base act against Jamal Khashoggi, and then the truth came out, and just as they denied subjecting the women activists to torture and sexual harassment, and then the truth appeared, today, they are trying to repeat their ridiculous claims that I was not oppressed and wronged by Saud al-Qahtani and his henchmen. The entire world knows your true nature, you masters of oppression and repression.
Translation: They stormed my family home. Their shouting filled the space as if they were looking for a dangerous terrorist. They assembled all my family members in one room and led me to my room. They seized my mobile phone and laptop. They then combed my room. They confiscated some of my books, while others were searching every corner of the house.
Translation: Then one of them said to me: “You will go with us. You have just five minutes to get ready.” I was horrified. I asked him why. He answered: “You now have only four minutes left.” I quickly got ready, had my hands shackled, then they placed a blindfold on my eyes and led me to the vehicle while members of my family looked in horror. Then, they drove me to where I would be imprisoned.
Translation: It never occurred to me that I would see the same prison conditions and torture techniques used by the Syrian regime taking place in my own country. I used to believe that our government still cared for the sanctity of Muslim homes and the sacredness of their honour and dignity, especially as we live in a tribal and Islamic society. But my beliefs soon left me, having gone through the experience, after they inserted their knives in our innocent bodies.
Translation: What enabled me to remain steadfast during those days, despite the gravity of the affliction, was people’s sympathy with me, the stance of the free people, the human journalism, the international organisations... I would like to thank them all, one by one, every institution. I would also like to apologise to all those I have not been able to reply to so far. Forgive me, for I have received more than 2,000 messages.
Translation: A blacked-out car drove me to the detention location. When I arrived, one of them dragged me from the car and took me inside, where I spent the period of my detention. The smell was rotten. I was lying on the ground blindfolded and handcuffed. After several hours, they untied me and removed the blindfold. I remained there waiting for questioning.
Translation: I was interrogated by a man wearing civilian clothes. They called him Abu Majid. When I was brought in to him he threw in front of me the article I wrote and some of my tweets. Then he asked me: “What is this article? Why have you written these tweets?” Then he moved to asking: “What is your relationship with the women activists al-Mani, al-Hathlul and al-Nafnajan?” Then he demanded that I give him the names of the intellectuals I knew.
Translation: The interrogator also asked me about writer KR, who previously offered me a job. He also asked me about writer and journalist Abd al-Aziz al-Qasim because I share a WhatsApp group with him. Then he asked me about my relationship with the Sheikhs and those of them known to me and whether I had been in contact with any of them. He asked me about everything, including my lame foot, which caused me pain. He asked me what caused it.
Translation: What shocked me the most was when Saud Al-Qahtani called my mother during my detention to tell her that I was well and in an “appropriate” place. Then he said to her: “Let one of you write a 'representation' to say that Reem was only a zealous young woman who writes what’s on her mind and has no connection to the women activists or rights defenders." He asked them to deliver that representation to him to act upon it later on.
Escape to asylum
Translation: The King Fahd Bridge was my gate to know whether I was banned from travelling or not. I thought a lot before going to Bahrain, to make sure. Then I decided it was time. When I got to the border, my heart was beating rapidly. But I found the proceedings to be normal and knew that I was not banned. Then I decided to take the next step. I got a visa and left.
Translation: I embarked on the second leg of my trip after learning that I had not been banned from travel. I searched for countries that are less busy with asylum applications. A colleague advised me to travel to the Netherlands. He suggested I get a university offer for doing a master's degree. So, I did. I paid the university fees and submitted a bank account that proved my ability to finance myself. I entered the country with a student visa.
Translation: Entering the Netherlands and then applying for political asylum was easy. What helped was that the asylum officials knew about the Saudi restrictions imposed on women activists... I shall provide full details later on about the application process for asylum and how to go about seeking asylum for those activists who wish to leave the country in pursuit of freedom and safety to learn.
Translation: Having told the story of my pain, I shall try now to allow myself some space to calm down and for the wound in my heart to heal. So, I shall stay away from Twitter and from media activity for some time. Thank you to all those who helped me leave the country and thank you to all those who stood by me and supported me after I left. See you.