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Through first half of 2020: No sign of an end to the persecution of women in Saudi Arabia

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The first half of 2020 comes to a close with the Saudi government continuing to detain 48 women in five prisons, according to ESOHR statistics. This includes activists and human rights advocates who are receiving deficient trials and experiencing various types of torture and ill-treatment. These statistics concern female political detainees and do not include women arrested on criminal charges. ESOHR believes that the actual numbers exceed the statistics.

Since 2018 in particular, the Saudi government hasintensified its efforts to arrest women, through a campaign targeting numerous prominent human rights advocates and activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, Maya al-Zahrani, Nassima al-Sada, Samar Badawi, Noor al-Musallam, Hatoon al-Fassi, Emanal-Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef, Hessa al-Sheikh, Madehaal-Ajroush, Walaa Al-Shubr, Nouf Abdulaziz, and others.

The campaign of arrests came amid the targeting and persecution of women in Saudi Arabia. ESOHR’s statistics show a rising number of arbitrary arrests over recent years, especially since King Salman bin Abdulaziz took power. ESOHR has documented the arrests of 87 women, although it believes the actual number is higher.

Despite the secrecy surrounding the Saudi government’s various violations, including towards women detainees, especially human rights advocates and activists, ESOHR is currently monitoring the ongoing detention of 48 women, most of them in political prisons. These women are being held in Dhahban Prison in Jeddah, Tarfiyah Prison in al-Qassim, Al-Ha’ir Prison in Riyadh, Mabahith Prison in Dhammam, and Sha’ar Prison in ‘Asir. The Saudi government has released eight women caught up in the 2018 arrests, some of them known to have been referred fortroubled trials, while ESOHR has monitored the final release of 30 women.

ESOHR statistics reveal that the detentions include women arrested on charges dating back to when they were minors. For example, Noor al-Musallam’s tweets, published when she was a minor, were classified as crimes requiring arrest. Some of these tweets expressed solidarity with the demands of social justice for Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, while othersconcerned political opinions.

Furthermore, ESOHR sources—former victims of Saudi prisons—have confirmed cases where women have been arrested along with their children. In a confidential interview with ESOHR, a former victim of detention and torture verified that Saudi Arabia uses various methods of physical and psychological torture, including isolating women from their children who were arrested with them and intimidating and blackmailing women with the goal of forcing them to sign confessions. The source also spoke about the arrest of pregnant women.

Two years in detention

Two years since the campaign of arrests targeting prominent women activists in the middle of 2018, the Saudi government remains determined to detain some of them and bring others to trial. These women continue to face an uncertain fate. In March 2019, almost ten months after the arrests, the first hearings of the trial began. Eight hours before the hearing was to begin, the defendants were transferred fromthe Specialized Criminal Court, which handles terrorism cases, to the Specialized Criminal Court for criminal cases. This is a clear violation of Article 5 of the Code of Criminal Procedure: “If a case is filed with a court, such case shall not be referred to another court or body, and no one has the right to withdraw it from the court before it is ruled upon. The case is considered filed from the date it is registered with the court.”

Despite women being deprived of the most basic requirements of justice, the first hearings held were not open to the public. Several hearings followed subsequently. The Public Prosecutor’s Office charged the female defendants with several offenses, including communicating with foreign media outlets and rights organizations.

During the second hearing of the trial, several of the women discussed the details of the torture and sexual harassment they endured, affirming that the interrogators shocked them with electricity, flogged them, sexually harassed them, and touched them.

ESOHR’s documentation has confirmed the interrogators’ use of various torture methods. Information also corroboratesSaud al-Qahtani’s direct involvement in and supervision of the crime of torture. The latter is an advisor to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Some of the confirmed methods of torture include interrogators beating female detainees with telephone wires with the help of female guards and forcing them to stand for long hours during interrogation. Sometimes the female guards prevented them from sitting down in their cells even after the end of the interrogation. A witness confirmed that a detainee who was five months’ pregnant was forced to stand for several hours. In addition, the female guards restrained a detainee while the interrogators removed her headscarf to force her to sign a false confession.

According to the documentation, female detainees were left in solitary confinement for long periods and prevented from communicating with or receiving visits from their families. They were sexually harassed, forced to watch embarrassing pornographic video clips, and many were threatened with rape if they did not cooperate.

Despite the women confirming before the judge their exposure to various forms of torture, it is not known that there was any investigation or trial. Rather, the Public Prosecutor’s Office proceeded to refutethe charge, saying that “all detainees are treated well according to the laws,” and categorically denying that any detainee, whether male or female, had been subjected to torture.

The Public Prosecutor’s denial meshes with the overall official claims regarding preventing torture in prisons, despite torture being practiced against detainees leading to a dangerous deterioration of their health or even their death. On 10 October 2016, Saudi activists spoke of the death of Hanan al-Thobyani, a female detainee in Dhahban Prison in Jeddah, attributing her death to torture. ESOHR was unable to obtain information from the sources directly. The circulating reports indicated that witnesses heard loud noises and screams on the same night her death was announced. Reports indicated that the Dhahban Prison administration summoned Hanan’s relatives to pray for her inside the prison and allowed them to see only her face. Afterwards, authorities buried her in a secret location, unknown to her relatives. Likewise, the prison administration forced the family to sign a statement saying that she died of natural causes so that no one could make a future claim accusing prison officials of torturing the detainee.

International positions

In June 2018, UN rapporteurs and experts contacted Saudi Arabia and requested details and information about the cases of Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, Aisha al-Mana, and Mohammed al-Bajadi. The rapporteurs expressed their concerns regarding the widespread campaign targeting human rights advocates, calling the arrest of women’s rights advocates, who called for lifting the ban on women driving, deeply worrying.

On 27 June 2018, in a public statement, UN rapporteurs and experts described Saudi Arabia’s human rights practices as clearly inconsistent and called on the government to immediately release several of the human rights advocates arrested in the latest campaign of oppression in the country. Moreover, they noted that the convictions of women’s rights advocates are not related just to their work and activities, but also include elements of gender-based discrimination.

In July 2018, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed her concern over the ongoing arbitrary arrests of male and female human rights and women’s rights advocates and activists in Saudi Arabia. The High Commissioner’s spokesperson, Ravina Shamdasani, urged the Saudi government to immediately and unconditionally release all human rights advocates and activists arrested on the basis of their peaceful human rights work and the ongoing, decades-long campaigns to lift the ban on women driving.

On 8 February 2019, a report issued by the UN Secretariat General emphasized that Saudi Arabia is continuing to practice various types of violations against human rights advocates and activists. The report was based on the concerns of the special rapporteurs regarding the arbitrary detention and degrading treatment of two female human rights advocates, Samar Badawi and Loujain al-Hathloul, who both cooperated with the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

In March 2019, 36 countries signed a declaration made by Iceland at the 40th session of the Human Rights Council. The declaration called on Saudi Arabia to release human rights advocates detained for exercising their fundamental freedoms, including Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan, Nouf Abdulaziz, Hatoon al-Fassi, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sada, Mohammed al-Bajadi, Amal al-Harbi, and Shaddan al-Anzi.

On 28 February 2020, the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women expressed its concern over the plight of human rights advocates in Saudi Arabia. In its statement on the second anniversary of activist Loujain al-Hathloul’s participation in the committee’s obligatory periodic review of Saudi Arabia, as part of its ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in the year 2000, the committee urged the Saudi government to release Loujain from her lengthy pre-trial detention and guarantee her right to a fair trial without further delay.

Two years since the campaign of arrests, amid the ongoing detention of dozens of women, and in the absence of a legal environment that allows any serious investigation or accountability for those responsible for violations, ESOHR expresses its fear for the safety and fate of female detainees. ESOHR also stresses that the sentences pending against the detainees, in light of the course their cases have taken and the abuses they have endured,will be unlawful. Indeed, it is logical that trials be held for those who have abused and wronged these women.

ESOHR believes that the cases of female detainees in Saudi Arabia, and their sufferings, does not just reflect the reality of the official handling of women’s rights and the falseness of the official claims regarding these rights. They also confirm the Saudi government’s approach of increasing oppression and stifling freedoms,as well as its lack of intent to reform its human rights behaviors.

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