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Saudi Arabia probes video of security forces beating girls and women

Authorities in Saudi Arabia are investigating a viral video that appears to show a group of men — some of them clad in security uniforms — beating girls and women at a residential facility in the southwestern part of the country.

The video emerged online this week and caused outrage among Saudi dissidents and activists, who said it highlighted the type of violence the state regularly inflicts on women and girls.

In the footage, policemen and men in civilian garb chase the women through the facility’s courtyard, beating some of them with belts or batons. At one point in the video, men drag a girl across the courtyard by her hair while a policeman whips her and other men put her in handcuffs.

Prince Turki bin Talal bin Abdulaziz, the governor of the Asir region where the facility is located, said in a statement Wednesday that he had issued a directive that a committee investigate the incident and “refer the case to the competent authority.”

Storyful, the news and intelligence agency that verifies social media content, confirmed the location of the video, which matches images of the state-run Social Education House for Girls in Khamis Mushait.

The facility’s director, Samar bint Hassan Ahmed al-Harbi, did not respond to a request for comment.

It was not clear when the video was taken or what led to the incident. The ages and identities of the female individuals, some of them wearing black abayas, were also unknown.

In Saudi Arabia, women are also often sent to “orphanages” or shelters to escape domestic violence or for disobeying family members. Women staying at these facilities, which are run by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development, frequently complain of ill-treatment, rights groups say.

According to ALQST, a U.K.-based rights group focused on Saudi Arabia, the person who first posted the video to social media said the attack on the women at Khamis Mushait was in retaliation for a protest over poor living conditions and rights violations at the facility.

The group said the events depicted in the video represented “the latest in a series of similar incidents in state-run social care homes” and Saudi prisons that have gone uninvestigated or did not result in justice for victims of abuse.

“Several battered women have previously reported similar violations in official institutions, including care homes, and the violators have not been held accountable,” the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights said in a statement Wednesday.

The organization said it did not believe the incident would be properly investigated, citing “flaws in the judicial system” and a general lack of accountability when it comes to crimes perpetrated against women.

Some Saudi news outlets reported that one of the security forces from the video was identified as the police chief in Khamis Mushait, Brig. Gen. Muhammad Yahya al-Banawi.

The Saudi public prosecutor’s office is probing the potential misuse of public funds at the orphanage in Khamis Mushait, and the cybercrimes unit launched an investigation into the videos circulating online, the state-run Saudi Press Agency reported Wednesday, citing an official source.

The announcement could be a sign Saudi authorities seek to punish those who took the video and circulated it under a cybercrimes law often used to crack down on critical online speech, according to Ali Adubisi, director of the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights.

As the video from the orphanage spread online this week, the Arabic-language hashtag “Khamis_Mushait_Orphans” began trending on Twitter and social media users denounced the beatings, while cartoonists lampooned the Saudi state.

“As if what women suffer under the male guardianship system isn’t enough, here we see how young women who don’t have male guardians and live in orphanages can be violently attacked by the state for demanding their basic rights,” Lina al-Hathloul, head of monitoring and communications at ALQST, said in a statement shared by the organization on Twitter.

Hathloul is the sister of Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent Saudi rights activist who was jailed for nearly three years after leading a campaign to allow women to drive.

In August, Saudi authorities sentenced two more women — Salma al-Shehab and Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani — to decades-long prison terms for critical online posts prosecutors said had violated public order and undermined the state, rights groups said.

The rulings come amid a broader crackdown on dissent led by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has pointed to some recent social and economic reforms as evidence he is working on modernizing the kingdom.

“Contrary to the narrative of reform and progress on women’s rights that the authorities are constantly trumpeting, the repressive male guardianship system is still far from being dismantled,” ALQST said in its statement. “What authorities call ‘recalcitrance’ or ‘disobedience’ to a male guardian … is treated as a crime.”

Sarah Dadouch and Annabelle Timsit contributed to this report.