Saudi Whistleblower Exposes The Torture And Sexual Abuse Of Prominent Activists
There are new allegations of torture committed against prominent political detainees in Saudi prisons, according to a Saudi whistleblower.
In January 2021, HRW received anonymous texts from a Saudi prison guard turned whistleblower, who was working at the Dhabhan Mabahith (intelligence) prison, north of Jeddah, and another location the guards identified as a secret prison. All the women activists in Saudi Arabia are in Dhahban Mabahith Prison but most of the torture takes place at an unofficial detention facility dubbed a “hotel” prior to moving the women to Dhahban. There is no description of where the women are kept for torture, but it is in a location known as the "officer's guesthouse." The texts sent by the whistleblower detailed the torture and crimes he or she and others had witnessed committed by Saudi interrogators against detainees in 2018. The whistleblower forwarded texts from other prison guards who similarly described what they witnessed
The whistleblower described specific incidents in which they allege that detainees, including the prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, and the human rights activist Mohammed al-Rabea, suffered torture and abuse at the hands of the brutal interrogators.
The whistleblower named a prominent Saudi women's rights activist who Saudi authorities arrested as part of a wide crackdown in May 2018. Her identity has been withheld to protect her from reprisal. The whistleblower reported: “In one of her torture sessions, she lost consciousness and we were all terrified. 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.”
A prison guard described the suffering of an unnamed male human rights activist detained in 2018. “They did not have mercy on [name withheld] … I would go to him and I would find him a lifeless corpse and expect that he died until the doctor comes and helps him with painkillers and other medicine to revive him. Then they would again torture him.”
The whistleblower also revealed the sexual harassment that Saudi interrogators inflicted upon Loujain al-Hathloul, who was conditionally released in February. “Loujain al-Hathloul was subjected to sexual harassment unprecedented to me from what I’ve witnessed ... They were relishing insulting her. They were mocking her that she is liberated and would not mind the harassment such as sticking their hands into her underwear or touching her thighs or spouting degrading words at her.”
In February, al-Hathloul's family members said that after her sentencing and conditional release, a SaudiAppeals Court rejected al-Hathloul's credible claims of torture in jail. Another court dismissed accusations of torture a month earlier, citing an alleged lack of evidence.
In another text message, a prison guard mentioned Mohammed al-Rabea, who was arrested alongside the women's rights activists in May 2018 and later convicted of a number of vague and spurious charges related to his activism on April 20. He was sentenced to at least six years. The text said: “al-Rabea was among the people who was tortured beyond his capacity to endure, especially when the interrogator learned that he suffers from back pain and so he started to get creative with his torture, targeting already painful locations to the extent that he was not able to go to the bathroom without us helping him get there.”
Prison authorities are also accused of torturing al-Rabea for months, including with electric shocks, waterboarding, and beatings. During his first year of imprisonment, he was confined to small spaces for days at a time without sleep or rest, he was often hung upside down, and he was often deprived of meals.
Al-Rabea's case will be decided by an appeals court on July 27. Al-Rabea is the last of the activists arrested in the May 2018 crackdown to remain in prison.
Legacy of impunity
Saudi Arabia has faced unprecedented international criticism in 2019 for its human rights record. The Saudi government was accused by human rights organizations in November 2018 of torturing at least four feminists, including with electric shocks and whippings, and of sexually harassing and assaulting them. In January 2019, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reported on the abuses and demanded that Saudi authorities should allow international monitors to enter the country and investigate the torture allegations.
Following investigations conducted by its office, which reports directly to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and the King, the Saudi Human Rights Commission, and the National Society for Human Rights, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's Public Prosecution found no evidence of torture in the two cases. The agencies listed above lack the independence to conduct a credible and transparent investigation that would hold those guilty of torture accountable.
Prince of darkness
The whistleblower claims the men "Cyber security" officers abused imprisoned activists, which may refer to officers working under the authority of former royal court advisor Saud al-Qahtani, formerly dismissed under the terms of a royal decree for his role in killing Khashoggi.
Al-Qahtani, was known as Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s enforcer and previously served as head of the royal court’s Center for Studies and Media Affairs. He also served on the Saudi Union for Cyber Security and Programming. Al-Qahtani directed online campaigns against Saudi critics, compiling a "black list" of critics to target. He is known in diplomatic circles as the “prince of darkness.”
Michael Page, the deputy MENA, director at HRW, said, “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 ... Letting abusers off the hook sends the message that they can torture with impunity and never face accountability for such crimes.”