Imprisoned women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia have been subjected to severe abuse, ranging from sleep deprivation to beatings, according to four people familiar with the conditions of the activists’ detention.
Several of the women, who have been jailed for more than six months, were abused during interrogations; they were administered electric shocks or flogged, two of the people said, citing a witness account. Other women displayed what witnesses said were apparent signs of abuse, including uncontrollable shaking or difficulty standing, the people said.
In addition to the beatings and electric shocks, at least one prisoner was hung from the ceiling during an interrogation. Another prisoner was told, falsely, that a relative had been killed. A third inmate has attempted suicide several times, the people familiar with the matter said.
The allegations of abuse and torture were impossible to independently confirm. Families are reluctant to repeat what they hear from the detainees during prison visits, fearing retaliation by the authorities. The four people who spoke about the abuse, all Saudi citizens, have contacts in the prison or had been briefed on conditions there. They spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern that revealing their names could identify the detainees.
Asked to comment on the allegations, a Saudi official, who declined to be named, said in an emailed statement, “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s judiciary system does not condone, promote, or allow the use of torture. Anyone, whether male or female, being investigated is going through the standard judiciary process led by the public prosecution while being held for questioning, which does not in any way rely on torture either physical, sexual, or psychological.”
The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents last month in Istanbul has heightened scrutiny of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and fueled rumors that Saudi authorities were considering releasing some of the female activists to blunt some of the attacks on the kingdom.
But seven weeks after Khashoggi’s killing, none of the activists have been released and there has been no indication that prosecutors have taken new steps to formally indict them.
Amnesty International released a report Tuesday also alleging that several of the Saudi activists detained since May have reportedly faced sexual harassment, torture and other forms of mistreatment while being interrogated. The report was released subsequent to The Post’s independent interviews with the four people familiar with detention conditions.
The report said that one of the female detainees was reportedly subjected to sexual harassment by interrogators wearing face masks. According to testimonies cited by Amnesty, the human rights group also reported that activists were repeatedly administered electric shocks or flogged. Some of the activists were left unable to walk or stand properly.
“Only a few weeks after the ruthless killing of Jamal Khashoggi, these shocking reports of torture, sexual harassment and other forms of ill-treatment, if verified, expose further outrageous human rights violations by the Saudi authorities,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East research director.
In mid-May, Saudi authorities began detaining the country’s most prominent feminists, after several waves of previous arrests had targeted other high-profile figures, including clerics, royal family members, business executives and independent political activists. Some of the women had worked for decades to repeal a female driving ban in Saudi Arabia. The arrests, which included men who had worked with the female activists, drew international outrage in part because they occurred just weeks before the Saudi government officially lifted the driving ban — and hailed its repeal as an important step forward for women’s rights in the kingdom.
Saudi authorities, which usually withhold the names of criminal suspects, also mounted a highly unusual campaign to publicize the women’s identities after detaining them on accusations that included illegal contacts with foreign countries.
None of the activists have been formally charged or been granted access to lawyers, the people familiar with the matter said.
According to the people familiar with the detentions, some of the female activists were detained for months at a building believed to be a hotel, where some of the worst abuses occurred at the hands of male interrogators. Many were then transferred to Dhahban prison in the coastal city of Jiddah. In both facilities, detainees were held in solitary confinement for long periods.
Saudi officials denied that the arrests were because of the women’s activism and accused them of trying to pass on information to foreign countries hostile to Saudi Arabia.