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Death in Saudi prisons: Denial of torture and lack of accountability

لقرائته بالعربية اضغط هنا

As is typical in cases of prison deaths in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which have been increasing in recent years, the Saudi government has not opened any investigation to determine responsibility for the death of journalist Saleh Al-Shehhi on 19 July 2020, two months after his sudden release from prison, or the death of the human rights advocate Abdullah al-Hamid in prison. This comes despite the fact that his death occurred more than two months ago, on 24 April 2020, and amid reports that he was subjected to medical negligence and abuse.

The accumulation of cases and repeated justifications of death due to torture, ill treatment, or the like, demonstrate Saudi Arabia’s approach and the lack of any way to assign responsibility to official agencies or holding their members accountable. Torture and medical negligence in Saudi prisons raise suspicions about any prison death and increase the possibility that the deceased was a victim of torture. In conjunction with the 2020 International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, ESOHR has published a report detailing the use of various types of systematic psychological and physical torture to extract confessions or take revenge. The report includes some victims who were killed as a result of torture and also documented the judiciary’s disregard for the reality of torture and its imposition of harsh sentences, up to and including the death penalty, against individuals whose confessions were coerced under torture, even though the victims confirmed their torture during trial.

In 1997, Saudi Arabia ratified the Convention Against Torture; however, approximately 23 years after it undertook to abide by the Convention’s articles, the government still has not stopped the practice of torture. On the contrary, documented reports indicate that its use has increased and worsened in recent years.

Article 12 of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment states that “[e]ach State Party shall ensure that its competent authorities proceed to a prompt and impartial investigation, wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed in any territory under its jurisdiction.” Nevertheless, these cases have not compelled Saudi Arabia to open investigations to determine responsibility or to take steps to prevent new cases. In fact, the government has deliberately covered up crimes of torture.

Furthermore, Article 14 of the Convention states that “[e]ach State Party shall ensure in its legal system that the victim of an act of torture obtains redress…. In the event of the death of the victim as a result of an act of torture, his dependants shall be entitled to compensation.” However, since there is no reassurance in the country that the families of victims will not suffer retaliation if they take practical steps to claim compensation or hold those involved accountable, there are hardly any claims for redress from the victims or their relatives, mostly due to fear.

Due to the lack of any type of civil or legal rights activity within Saudi Arabia, as a result of policies to silence or arrest most activists and human rights advocates, it is difficult to transparently and fully access facts and figures regarding detainees who have died from torture or medical neglect.

In this report, ESOHR presents some cases of prison death, including torture or medical neglect, as well as ambiguous cases.


Death with signs of physical torture

Cases with photo documentation

Makki al-Areed

On 4 March 2016, handball player Makki al-Areed was killed under torture. This occurred two days after he was arrested at a checkpoint and tortured at the Awamiyah police station. Al-Areed was known in his community as an athlete and a volunteer at Al-Salam Sports Club in Awamiyah. After the authorities delayed, his family requested his body be handed over to them. After he was handed over, pictures and video clips emerged showing the effects of harsh torture on his body, including blows, electric shocks, cigarette burns, and wounds from sharp instruments.


Mohammed Reda al-Hassawi

In January 2017, a young male prisoner, Mohammed Reda al-Hassawi, died in the Mabahith Prison in Dammam, two years after his arrest.

Activists published photos on social media showing bruises on his body. Marks on his hands are believed to be the result of being suspended by his hands for a long period. Likewise, community sources quoted a doctor who examined al-Hassawi’s body, saying that he had received electric shocks more than once and had likely been dead for at least a week before being handed over to his family. The authorities had claimed that his cause of death was a heart attack.


Local sources confirming torture

Sultan al-Doayes

In December 2010, Yemeni citizen Sultan al-Doayes died in Tarfiyah Prison. He was arrested in October 2006, and his torture was confirmed during family visits. Official authorities said that his death was the result of angina pectoris. After his brother was allowed to see the victim’s body, his family observed that the body bore visible marks of torture and blows on different parts of his body, including his chest and back. Al-Doayes’s family refused to sign the document regarding the handover of his body, and instead requested an autopsy be performed to determine the cause of death. Saudi authorities refused the request.


Nizar Al Muhsin

A young man named Nizar Al Muhsin died on 16 November 2011 at the Tarout police station. Official authorities claimed that the cause of death was a heart attack. However, sources contacted the organization and stated that the forensic medicine confirmed that the death was caused by internal bleeding, while one of the detainees was with him in the cell, confirmed that Nizar was beaten before the death on his head, and that the family was forced to surrender to receive the body.


Jaber Habib al-Aqili

Jaber Habib al-Aqili (age 45), from Tarout in the Qatif region, was arrested on 7 January 2017, on charges of sailing in a restricted area. He was declared dead, under suspicious circumstances, on 12 January 2017. Activists pointed out that he had suffered torture and abuse during a period of detention lasting less than a week.

Saudi authorities claimed that al-Aqili hanged himself in prison; however, his family rejected the account of authorities who had previously committed similar crimes inside prisons.


Ali al-Nazgha

In March 2018, detainee Ali Jassim al-Nazgha (age 61) died in the Mabahith Prison. He was arrested on 6 November 2017, on a street in his village around the time a soldier was killed in the village of al-Buhari in the governorate of Qatif. The source said that al-Nazgha, a retired employee and father of seven children, had left his home to buy food at a restaurant when he was arrested. Months later, his dead body was returned to his family. Local reports indicated that his family was prevented from photographing his body, and it is believed that the authorities wanted to keep hidden the effects of torture seen on his body during its preparation for burial.


Hussein al-Ribh

In November 2019, bodybuilder and detainee Hussein Abdulaziz al-Ribh died in the Mabahith General Prison in Saudi Arabia. According to information obtained by the ESOHR from sources close to the victim’s family, Al-Ribh has been subjected to brutal torture at multiple times, since his arrest in August 2017.


Deaths due to negligence or ill treatment

Hassan Abdullah al-Aujan:

On 14 August 2011, the young Hassan al-Aujan died 5 months after his arrest on 16 March, 2011. Al-Aujan was arrested in connection with the demonstrations in the Qatif region. National sources confirmed that al-Aujan, who was 18 years old, was tortured and beaten on the head upon his arrest, and that he did not receive the necessary health care as he was suffering from sickle cell disease, and this led to the deterioration of his health and then his death.


Habib al-Shuwaikhat

In January 2017, a young man named Habib al-Shuwaikhat died of cancer and disorders of the heart and thyroid gland, compounded by intentional medical neglect. His conditions caused him shortness of breath, inability to walk, and great difficulty moving. Although his father sent a letter to the Royal Court explaining his son’s critical health condition and appealing to the king to provide him with immediate care, the appeal was ignored, and his son died.


Ahmed Al-Ammari Al-Zahrani                                                                                                     

Sheikh Ahmed Al-Ammari Al-Zahrani (age 70) died in Dhahban Prison in Jeddah in January 2019. According to official authorities, he suffered a stroke.

Social media activists said that he died about a week after he was released in a brain-dead state, with all charges against him dropped. They speculated he was released because he fell into a coma from a cerebral hemorrhage that he suffered days after he entered the prison, where he did not receive the necessary medical care.

Al-Zahrani had worked as Dean of the College of Quran at the Islamic University of Madinah, and he had been previously arrested in September 2018 during the campaign of arrests targeting clerics.


Saleh Abdulaziz al-Damiri

Sheikh Saleh al-Damiri died in Tarfiyah Prison on 3 August 2019. There were rumors that he died of medical neglect. He suffered from heart disease and had been placed in solitary confinement.


Ahmed al-Shaya

On 8 August 2019, Ahmed al-Shaya died in Tarfiyah Prison. There were rumors that al-Shaya suffered deliberate medical neglect and physical and psychological torture, thus  aggravating his suffering.


Abdullah al-Hamid

On 24 April 2020, human rights activist Dr. Abdullah al-Hamid died in hospital after a sequence of deliberate medical neglect. The most prominent founder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (HASEM), al-Hamid was arrested numerous times for his human rights activities and demands for reform.

On 9 April 2020, after suffering a stroke and entering a coma, Al-Hamid was transferred to intensive care from al-Ha’ir Prison in Riyadh, where he had been detained since 2013. According to reports, the doctor had stressed for months his need for an operation, but he was denied.


Deaths under suspicious circumstances

Hanan al-Thobyani

On 10 October 2016, Saudi activists confirmed the death by torture of female detainee Hanan al-Thobyani in Dhahban Prison in Jeddah. According to the activists’ reports, al-Thobyani died under suspicious circumstances.

Likewise, reports indicate that the Dhahban Prison administration summoned Hanan’s family to the prison but did not permit them to see her face. They then buried her in a secret location unknown even to her relatives. Prison officials also forced them to sign a declaration saying that she died of natural causes, so that no one could file an appeal in the future to hold prison officials responsible for her death or murder.


Hamad Abdullah al-Salhi

Hamad Abdullah al-Salhi died in March 2018 at the Tarfiyah Prison in Buraydah. According to reports of al-QST human rights organization, al-Salhi was arrested in October 2004 and sentenced to three years in jail. However, he remained in jail for more than 13 years, seven of those in solitary confinement. He was not released even though his sentence had expired and his health had deteriorated significantly.


Mohammed Bani al-Ruwaily

On 17 July 2019, Mohammed Bani al-Ruwaily (the famous “king of the daha” [a Bedouin art form using song, dance, and poetry]) died at the main prison in Sakaka in the al-Jawf region. Al-Ruwaily was in prison for interfering with the motorcade of Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in the al-Jawf region. This is confirmed by several social network sources and by a document al-Ruwaily addressed to the prince of al-Jawf, in which the deceased confirmed that the incident in which the motorcade was overrun was an accident. He was arbitrarily arrested and taken to the traffic department.


Basheer al-Mutlaq

Basheer al-Mutlaq (age 40) died in the Mabahith Prison in Dammam on 25 August 2018. While official authorities declared that he suffered a stroke in prison, social sources confirmed that he had suffered from pains and complications of torture he received during the first years of his detention and that he was denied health care in prison. The circumstances of his death have not been investigated.

Al-Mutlaq was arrested in January 2012, after his name had been placed on a list of 23 wanted persons, amid the backdrop of protests that began in Qatif governorate in February 2011.


Mohammed Bani al-Ruwaily

On 17 July 2019, Mohammed Bani al-Ruwaily (the famous “king of the daha” [a Bedouin art form using song, dance, and poetry]) died at the main prison in Sakaka in the al-Jawf region. Al-Ruwaily was in prison for interfering with the motorcade of Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in the al-Jawf region. This is confirmed by several social network sources and by a document al-Ruwaily addressed to the prince of al-Jawf, in which the deceased confirmed that the incident in which the motorcade was overrun was an accident. He was arbitrarily arrested and taken to the traffic department.


Lotfi Al Habib

In August 2018, Saudi authorities arrested Lotfi Al Habib (age 44) after a traffic accident with a police patrol who claimed it was intentional.

After three days, Habib’s family received a phone call from the Tarout police informing them he had died in detention by suicide. The family doubted this claim, and Habib’s father refused to sign an acknowledgement of his son’s suicide. For this reason, the Saudi authorities refused to hand over his body to his relatives and used various forms of pressure and threats against the father to force him to sign the statement before they would hand over the victim’s body.


Bashir al-Mutlaq

On 25 August 2018, Bashir al-Mutlaq (40 years) died in the mabahith prison in Dammam, where official authorities announced that he had suffered a stroke in prison, but social sources confirmed that he was suffering from the pain and complications of the torture he suffered during the first years of his detention and he was denied health care in prison. The circumstances of his death were not investigated.
Al-Mutlaq was arrested in January 2012 after placing his name on the list of 23 wanted persons, in connection with the protests that began in the Qatif Governorate in February 2011.


Nayef Ahmed al-Omran

On18 January 2019, the young man, Nayef Al-Omran, died in prison. Al-Omran was arrested in 2011, and his family was surprised when al-Dammam Investigation Prison administration inform them that they should receive his body, after he suddenly deid.


Fahd al-Qadi

On 13 November  2019, Sheikh Fahd Al-Qadi died in Al-Malaz Prison in Riyadh. He was arrested in 2016 and sentenced to 6 years in prison for expressing his opinion. He died hours after he was taken to hospital, while his family indicated that he was suffering from acute pneumonia, raising questions about whether he received the necessary medical attention, or was a victim of medical negligence.


Saleh al-Shehi

On 19 July 2020, the writer Saleh Al-Shehi passed away. He was released suddenly on May 19, after 28 months of his arrest since January 2018, while he was supposed to complete an unfair five-year prison sentence, followed by five other travel bans, due to his criticism of the corruption of the circle surrounding King Salman in the royal court. Official media reports stated that he died from the Corona virus (Covid-19) that infected him in the middle of last month, but reliable local sources told the Gulf Center for Human Rights, that his health had already deteriorated while he was in prison and that he had suffered bad conditions.

ESOHR notes that the Saudi government’s lack of transparency in handling cases, and its policy of threat and intimidation against civil society, prevent ascertaining the true number of prison deaths in Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, the numbers and cases which ESOHR has documented confirm the presence of criminal practices and charge official authorities with direct responsibility, including the Presidency of State Security, which was founded by royal decree in mid-2017 and reports directly to King Salman. This agency has emerged as a fiercely repressive organ directly protected by the king. While the circumstances of some cases show that the death was the direct result of harsh torture, there are suspicions that more ambiguous cases are also linked to torture, ill treatment, or medical neglect.

ESOHR believes that the legal environment lacks the independence that could help bring justice to the victims and their families, as well as to ensure that such cases of death in detention do not recur. Likewise, lack of judicial independence prevents any means of accountability. ESOHR stresses that these violations represent clear examples of how Saudi Arabia circumvents international commitments, particularly the Convention Against Torture. Since 2006, the Saudi government has ignored visit requests from the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, thus indicating that its true fear is that the reality of appalling systematic torture, done with full knowledge of King Salman and his son Mohammed, will be exposed.

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