Saudi women’s rights advocates reportedly abused while in prison
ISTANBUL — Several women’s rights activists who have been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for more than six months have been subjected to psychological or physical abuse while in custody, including sleep deprivation and beatings, according to four people familiar with the conditions of the activists’ detention.
Some of the abuse occurred during interrogations, during which several of the women 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.
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.
The Saudi government did not immediately respond to an e-mail sent Monday requesting comment on the allegations. In previous cases, Saudi officials have vigorously denied detainees are tortured while in the state’s custody.
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.
Saudi authorities began detaining the country’s most prominent feminists in mid-May, 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.
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.
A former inmate at Dhahban prison who said she was released about three months ago said that she had witnessed interrogators beat inmates at the facility, using phone cables and other implements. She did not have any specific information about the treatment of the women’s rights activists, she said.
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 Washington 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.
According to Amnesty, at least a dozen women and men associated with the Saudi feminist movement have been detained since May. Several who were well known for their activism had been arrested in the past, including Samar Badawi, Aziza al-Yousef, and Loujain al-Hathloul. The activists had fought to end the driving ban as well as to repeal regulations that require women to seek the permission of a male guardian to travel or to work.
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.
When the detentions began in May, the women’s pictures were circulated in pro-government media outlets with headlines that branded them as ‘‘traitors.’’