Allegations of torture and abuse of female activists in Saudi prisons became the subject of a high level investigation in the UK. The Detention Review Panel (DPR) – a cross‐party group of British parliamentarians and international lawyers – opened an investigation into the detention and treatment of women activist detainees in Saudi Arabia earlier this year and are seeking cooperation from Riyadh to verify reports of gross human rights abuse in the kingdom’s prison.
So far Riyadh has been unwilling to cooperate with the inquiry. On 2 January DPR sent a letter to the Saudi embassy requesting to visit female detainees in prison as part of its review into their detention and health conditions. During a press conference today in London, members of the group confirmed Riyadh’s failure to meet the 9 January deadline.
The DRP, which was establish in 2018 and published its first report reviewing the detention and treatment of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, said the findings of the second review will be concluded at the end of the month. It will assess details of the allegations of ill-treatment of eight Saudi women activists and three male supporters currently being detained in Saudi Arabia. The group stated its intention to continue to review evidence that have been submitted so far but nevertheless remained ready to welcome new evidence from the Saudi government over the allegations despite their failure to meet the deadline.
Chair of the DRP, Conservative party MP Crispin Blunt said that the review was “focused” and “narrow” and is looking specifically at the alleged abuse of the ten human rights activists. He explained that the DPR does not possess the resource or the remit to be able to carry out a thorough investigation into the Saudi prison system.
The allegations include torture, sexual harassment, assault and denial of access to family members and lawyers. Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, Adam Coogle described the fate of the activists and revealed that torture was being used to “teach them a lesson” and to “humiliate” them.
The activists were arrested in May 2018, just weeks before the Saudi authorities lifted the ban on women driving. Prominent women’s rights activists are jailed after being accused of grave crimes including treason. Rights groups say their imprisonment appears to be directly related to their activism. According to Human Rights Watch, by November last year, at least nine women remain detained without charge; though some anticipated charges could carry prison terms of up to 20 years. The nine included Loujain Al-Hathloul, Aziza Al-Yousef, Eman Al-Nafjan, Nouf Abdelaziz, Mayaa Al-Zahrani, Hatoon Al-Fassi, Samar Badawi, Nassema Al-Sadah, and Amal Al-Harbi.
Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, said that the ten detainees were jailed using anti-terror law, which she explained was being abused by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, known also as MBS. She accused the de facto ruler of the kingdom of running a “mafia style government”, citing his involvement in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The horrific details of abuse endured by female activists in Saudi prisons became a source of serious concern last year, especially in the wake of the murder of Khashoggi. The Washington Post journalist was brutally murdered in the Saudi embassy by a 15-man Saudi hit squad that is believed to have been sent by MBS.
The UK, which has a lucrative arms deal with the kingdom, became the target of campaigns. Right groups claimed that Britain had a special responsibility to address the issue because of its close ties with the kingdom.
Labour MP Dr Paul Williams, who was previously a medical examiner for evidence of torture and is a member of DPR, said that he was looking forward to lending his expertise to the team. He encouraged Saudi Arabia to cooperate with the review and permit him and his colleagues to see first-hand the conditions under which the activists are being kept. If the allegations are “unfounded” as the Saudi’s claim, then they have nothing to hide, he said. He encouraged the kingdom to take this opportunity and disprove the allegations, if it believed they were false, adding that in any case, the review would be published with or without Riyadh’s cooperation.
Echoing Williams, Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Education and the first British-Palestinian MP, said that the review was “sensitive to cultural differences”; she appeared to imply that the investigation was not politically motivated nor was it intended to comment on the conservative nature of the Saudi Kingdom. The allegations made against Saudi Arabia are universally condemned and were illegal under Saudi law. Moran said she remained hopeful that Saudi would cooperate and allow the delegation to visit Riyadh and meet with the prisoners.
Blunt, who supports Britain’s relation with Saudi Arabia and is even quoted as saying that the UK should lay down the red carpet for MBS, informed the media that he had written twice to the Saudi embassy requesting their cooperation; explaining that it was the “wise thing to do”. He revealed that the UK was reviewing every aspect of its relationship with Riyadh, especially since the killing of Khashoggi but avoided giving any hints as to whether Britain would suspend all arms sales to the kingdom if investigations into Khashoggi’s death and DPR’s own report find MBS responsible for gross human rights abuse.
King Salman has made changes to the Saudi cabinet in the wake of the crises that rocked Riyadh following the death of Khashoggi, noted Blunt. He described the changes as positive steps and stressed that cooperating with DPR’s review was another way to send a clear signal that things are changing within the kingdom.
DRP will continue to prepare a report documenting their review of alleged human rights abuses to be published at the end of the month, saying they welcome additional evidence.