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Jailed Saudi women’s rights activists said to face electric shocks, beatings and other abuse

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. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

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 in 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. 

Asked to comment on the allegations, a Saudi official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, 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.”

Amnesty International released a report Tuesday also saying 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 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 criticism of the kingdom.  

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded Nov. 20 to questions about the U.S. response to the killing of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. (Video: Reuters)

But seven weeks after the killing of Khashoggi, who contributed opinion pieces to The Post, none of the activists have been released, and there has been no indication that prosecutors have taken new steps to indict them.

Saudi authorities began detaining the country’s most prominent feminists in mid-May, after several waves of previous arrests 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 ban on women driving 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, who 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 charged or granted access to lawyers, said the people familiar with the matter.

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 who said she was released about three months ago said that she had witnessed interrogators beating 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.  

The Amnesty report said one of the female detainees was reportedly subjected to sexual harassment by interrogators wearing masks. According to testimonies cited by Amnesty, 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,” Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East research director, said in a statement.

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.”

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