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South Africa sisters held in Saudi prison speak of ordeal at UN testimony 

Image of a prison cells [Melissa Robison/Flickr]
Prison cells [Melissa Robison/Flickr]

Two South African sisters imprisoned in Saudi Arabia without charge spoke of their ordeal at the UN yesterday.

Yumna Desai, a former English teacher at the University of Ha’il in northern Saudi Arabia, and her sister Huda Mohammad, who had been married to a Saudi national, were imprisoned for a year without being informed of the charge for which they were being detained, Reuters reported.

“We were never given an explanation as to why we were arrested,” Desai said while giving testimony at an event on the side-lines of the UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva, Switzerland. “Detainees are left for unknown periods in solitary confinement. They are threatened with arrests and detentions of family members if they did not confess.”

Desai said that she had been held at Dhaban prison in Jeddah from 2015 to 2018. She wasn’t made aware of the reason for her arrest until a year later, when she found out she had been charged with unspecified “cybercrimes”.

During Desai’s testimony, representatives from member states heard about the suffering of children that were held with their mothers and of four women that had to give birth while in custody.

“I stand here today to give a voice to the voiceless, those detainees who have been physically and psychologically tortured, sitting there for years without trial, denied visits, phone calls, medical aid,” Desai went on to say.

READ: Saudi Arabia cancels death sentence against teen who led protests at the age of 13 years

Desai also informed the meeting that she had seen some of the dozen or so leading female women’s rights campaigners rounded up a year ago being held in the same prison wing. Their plight has been the focus of a worldwide campaign led by human rights groups, the UN and EU, as well as those British MPs following widespread allegations of torture and abuse.

While these campaigns have focused on some famous names among female activists in Saudi Arabia, Desai said that the fate of less-famous women also needed to be publicised.

“It is not just people like Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef or Samar Badawi, all of them who were in the same prison wing as me, that we should feel outraged about,” said Desai. Pointing out that their detention was “entirely arbitrary and illegal,” she also drew attention to all the women that were detained.

Her sister, Huda added: “Our arrest, like of many in the country, was violent and to this day remains a mystery.” She continued by saying “today we have submitted an official complaint on Saudi treatment to the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.”

The sisters were held with their two brothers, who were later released. The four siblings had been working in Saudi Arabia and have now returned to South Africa.

READ: UN ‘regrets’ Saudi dismissal of Khashoggi report

AfricaInternational OrganisationsMiddle EastNewsSaudi ArabiaSouth AfricaUN
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