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Treatment of Saudi women activists could be torture, UK panel finds

Detention Review Panel says responsibility for 'cruel, inhumane and degrading' treatment of prisoners could extend to 'highest levels of Saudi authority'
Loujain al-Hathloul has been detained on several occasions since 2014 for campaigning for women's driving rights (Facebook)

A panel of British MPs and lawyers investigating the detention of women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia has concluded that their treatment could constitute torture under Saudi and international law.

In a report published on Monday, the Detention Review Panel said that the eight activists had been treated in a way that was "cruel, inhumane and degrading" and that "Saudi authorities at the highest levels could be responsible for the crime of torture".

It said the activists had been subjected to sleep deprivation, assault, threats to life and solitary confinement.

"The DRP has concluded that the culpability for torture rests not only with the direct perpetrators but also  with those responsible for it, and those who acquiesce to it. The DRP has found that the Saudi authorities at the highest levels could, in principle, be responsible for the crime of torture," the panel said in a statement.

Last month, the panel, which is chaired by Crispin Blunt, a Conservative MP, wrote to the Saudi ambassador in London to ask to visit the women and three detained male supporters to review the conditions in which they were being held.

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But the report said the panel had not had a response from either the embassy or the Saudi government.

The report was based on "secondary source material" including reports from human rights organisations, opinions from a United Nations working group on arbitrary detentions, UN expert statements and news reports, it said.

"Our conclusions are stark. The Saudi women activist detainees have been treated so badly as to sustain an international investigation for torture. Denied proper access to medical care, legal advice or visits from their families, their solitary confinement and mistreatment are severe enough to meet the international definition of torture," Blunt said.

"The supervisory chain of command up to the highest levels of Saudi authority would be responsible for this."

The eight women, Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al‐Yousef, Eman al‐Nafjan, Nouf Abdelaziz, Mayaa al‐Zahrani, Samar Badawi, Nassima al‐Saada, and Hatoon al‐Fassi, were arrested as part of a sweeping crackdown on political activists conducted by Saudi authorities in May last year.

The arrests came shortly before Saudi Arabia announced the lifting of its longstanding ban on women driving.

Many of those arrested had been involved in the campaign to have the ban lifted. Human rights organisations including Amnesty International have also 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".

Layla Moran, a Liberal Democrat MP, said: "When I heard of the arrests, I was, like many people, shocked that it had happened at all. The torture, in particular allegations of sexual harassment and threats of rape, are inexcusable.”

Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division, told MEE last month 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.

"[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."

In its recommendations, the DRP called for the immediate release of the activists and for the criminal charges brought against them to be reviewed.

It also called for an "immediate investigation and prosecution be undertaken into those individuals responsible for the mistreatment of detainees".