Saudis to Probe Allegations That Women Activists Tortured

(Bloomberg) -- Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor is investigating allegations that several prominent women’s rights activists have been tortured in jail, according to three people familiar with the matter.

The torture, including electric shocks and floggings, allegedly occurred over the summer at a secret detention facility in an unknown location, according to four people. The prosecutor’s office entered the picture after the government’s Human Rights Commission conducted its own investigation, first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Prosecutors visited the activists in prison to take their testimony about physical and verbal abuse, as well as sexual harassment they say they’ve endured since they were detained in May, people said.

The Saudi government’s Center for International Communication didn’t respond to a request for comment. In November, the media ministry had called the allegations -- reported at the time by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch -- "baseless" and "simply wrong."

Crackdown on Dissent

While Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is opening Saudi Arabia to foreign investment and has loosened social restrictions to grant women more rights, he’s also cracked down on dissent, imprisoning dozens of critics across the political spectrum. The campaign turned deadly on Oct. 2 with the murder of government critic Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi’s killing created an international uproar, though the government has vehemently denied that the prince played a role.

The feminist activists, including Loujain Al Hathloul, Aziza Alyousef and Eman Alnafjan, had fought for years for Saudi women’s rights, including the right to drive. They were arrested in May along with several male supporters shortly before the government lifted its longstanding ban on women driving. Authorities accused them of collaborating with unspecified foreign entities hostile to the kingdom, and local newspapers called them traitors.


In an opinion piece in The New York Times on Sunday, Alia Al Hathloul confirmed that a prosecutor had visited her sister in jail to take testimony.

Separately, Loujain Al Hathloul told her parents “she had been held in solitary confinement, beaten, waterboarded, given electric shocks, sexually harassed and threatened with rape and murder," her sister wrote. "My parents then saw that her thighs were blackened by bruises."

"After the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia argued that occasionally officials make mistakes and misuse their power," she added. "Yet we are still waiting for justice."

In an interview with Bloomberg in October, Prince Mohammed said Saudi authorities had videos and recordings that showed the activists were working with foreign intelligence agencies and "being paid money to leak." He invited reporters to visit the prosecutor’s office to review the evidence against them but authorities haven’t granted multiple requests for access.

Last month, one of the male detainees -- an 80-year-old lawyer who had previously represented Al-Hathloul -- was freed, giving hope to some Saudi activists that the government could release others.

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