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Saudi Arabia must investigate transparent the allegations of recurrent sexual abuse of children at Social Observation Home

Social Observation Home

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The European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights (ESOHR) has received a complaint about recurrent sexual abuse of detained children by employees at a social observation home (Saudi juvenile detention facility). According to the complaint, children are subjected to sexual abuse, and most of them are afraid to disclose what they have suffered due to fear of torture and further mistreatment, as well as a lack of confidence that governmental agencies will protect them from retaliation.

Social observation homes engage in torture, and the ESOHR has monitored several cases, including the case of the minor, Murtaja Qureiris, who was arrested on 20 September 2014, at the age of 13. After he was sent to the Dammam social observation home, investigators placed Qureiris in solitary confinement for a month, despite his young age, where he was subjected to torture and mistreatment, such as slapping and beating on various part of his body, to force him to confess to the charges.

In addition, there is the case of the minor, Abdullah al-Zaher, who was arrested after being shot. He was then transferred to the Dammam social observation home, where he was interrogated by officers, beaten with wire cables all over his body, and kicked so that the marks remained on his body. Afterwards, he was forced to certify his statement and sign papers which he had not read and of which neither he nor his family or lawyer had any knowledge. In yet another case, Dawood al-Marhoon was arrested in the hospital, where he was supposed to have surgery on his eye. al-Marhoon was deprived of treatment for his eyes, placed in solitary confinement for a week, and subjected to various forms of torture, including severe beating with hands and feet. Investigators also forced him to lie on his stomach while they trampled upon him.

Taha al-Hajji, a lawyer who is handling the cases of several minors, thinks that “male and female detainees have finally begun to speak out in more detail about the forms of torture and abuse they have suffered, including sexual harassment. Since violations against children similar to adults have already been documented, it is not unlikely that they have suffered this type of violation.” Al-Hajji noted that “local and national laws, including the law on minors, stress the duty to protect children and minors and to give them special treatment. This was the objective behind the establishment of social observation homes, but this has not happened, and minors have been mistreated inside the homes.”

In addition, these violations are accompanied by the difficulty of holding accountable the employees of bodies used by Saudi Arabia to repress people, such as the Ministry of Interior and the Presidency of State Security. Because there is no independent judiciary, this apparatus is shielded by an undeclared state of immunity against accountability. The Saudi government is under very little pressure to investigate or hold anyone accountable, and corruption and discipline among members of the repressive apparatus greatly help in covering up the perpetrators of crimes and the violations used in repressive agencies.

The complete absence of a free media in Saudi Arabia plays a role in keeping cases such as these under wraps. Likewise, government institutions and departments that operate under the label of “human rights” – such as the Human Rights Commission, the National Society for Human Rights, and the human rights division in the Ministry of Interior – work according to limits established in advance by those responsible for the policy of repression and violations in the country. Thus, these human rights bodies have no independent authority vis-à-vis the King, the Crown Prince, or whomever is connected to them. Likewise, they have no authority in the face of ruling institutions such as the Ministry of Interior and the Presidency of State Security. In fact, these bodies often bless and support the violations, cover up crimes such as torture, and justify systematic, repressive practices, including arbitrary arrests.

Despite the absence of a free press, monitoring on the part of the ESOHR and other human rights organizations has confirmed other cases where sexual abuse and harassment are used as a means of intimidation, torture, and pressure. In addition to documenting sexual violations against detainees under torture, reports have confirmed that female detainees are subjected to various types of sexual harassment, indicating that it may be a more widespread practice than generally recognized and that there is nothing preventing it from occurring to minors. These reports are surfacing despite societal traditions that may keep detainees from disclosing these violations.

Saudi Arabia has already received multiple requests from various parties to allow international observers to visit female detainees following allegations of torture and harassment, especially after the recent reports emanating from detained female human rights advocates and activists who have confirmed that they were tortured and sexually harassed. Saudi Arabia, however, tends to protect itself from independent and neutral international opinion by preventing many international observers from visiting and investigating the facts. For example, since 2006, Saudi Arabia has ignored continued requests from UN special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel. Likewise, on the very limited occasions on which it permits visits from UN rapporteurs, the Saudi government does not allow them freedom of movement, nor does it respond to their requests to interview the victims of their choice. Ben Emerson, the former special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, who visited Saudi Arabia twice in 2016 and 2017, explained that, during his field visit, officials prevented him “from speaking with prisoners whom he expressed a desire to interview privately,” and instead took him to carefully selected facilities.

The use of torture in social observation homes, together with other factors, such as the policy of protecting the employees of the apparatus of repression, the subordination of the state’s judiciary, the absence of a free press, and the intimidation of civil society leading to its significant elimination from public life, play a role in making it extremely difficult to investigate these cases and holding criminals accountable.

The ESOHR is aware of the risks of raising such cases without direct and specific references; however, in doing so, it relies on sounding the alarm, educating the public, and stopping or limiting these practices by publicizing these violations and abuses against children in this social observation home. ESOHR concealed the identity of the social observation home, the name of the observers working in it, and the name of the victims, in order to protect the victims from oppression and government retaliation.

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