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Saudi Arabia: New evidence of torture of female political prisoners

Sources in Saudi prison talk about officers 'relishing' meting out abuse to female prisoners such as women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul
Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul pictured on her way to the state security court in Riyadh on 10 March 2021 (AFP)

New details have emerged about the extent of the torture meted out against political prisoners in Saudi Arabia's prisons.

A Saudi prison guard based in Dhabhan prison, north of Jeddah, provided Human Rights Watch with further evidence that prisoners such as women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul were subjected to violent treatment including electric shocks, beatings, whippings, and sexual threats.

The guard said that one female political prisoner, whom HRW declined to name, was tortured so badly in one session that staff feared she had died.

"In one of her torture sessions, [name withheld] lost consciousness and we were all terrified," he said, on condition of anonymity.

'Letting abusers off the hook sends the message that they can torture with impunity and never face accountability for such crimes'

- Michael Page, Human Rights Watch

"We feared that she had died and that we would bear responsibility because the instructions were to not kill any of the detainees, men or women."

Hathloul, he said, was subjected to "unprecedented" levels of sexual abuse, with prison officers groping and molesting her and mocking her status as a "liberated" woman.

The comments expand upon numerous reports of the degrading treatment that political prisoners have suffered in recent years, following a wide-ranging crackdown initiated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2017.

"New evidence alleging Saudi Arabia's brutal torture of women's rights advocates and other high-profile detainees further exposes Saudi Arabia's utter contempt for the rule of law and failure to credibly investigate these allegations," said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.

"Letting abusers off the hook sends the message that they can torture with impunity and never face accountability for such crimes."

Barred from travel

Several freed activists and their family members are barred from leaving Saudi Arabia, in a collective punishment that leaves them vulnerable to what campaigners call state coercion.

In late December, a Saudi court handed Hathloul a prison term of five years and eight months for terrorism-related crimes, but the partially suspended sentence paved the way for her early release in February.

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Hathloul was released on probation and is banned from leaving the kingdom for five years.

The crackdown on women activists, which drew global condemnation, has cast a spotlight on the human rights record of the kingdom, an absolute monarchy.

US President Joe Biden has vowed to press Saudi Arabia harder on human rights and earlier this year declassified an intelligence report into the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the kingdom's Istanbul consulate.

Khashoggi's murder tarnished the global reputation of the crown prince, who has sought to modernise the conservative kingdom as it tries to diversify its oil-reliant economy.