Saudi’s jailing of women activists comes under U.K. scrutiny amid torture reports

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a graduation ceremony for the 95th batch of cadets from the King Faisal Air Academy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia Dec. 23, 2018. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court

A group of British MPs have penned an open letter to Saudi officials, raising concerns over jailed human rights activists in the country.

In a letter published online Wednesday, an independent group of British politicians and lawyers called on the kingdom to look into allegations that the prisoners are being tortured. The letter is addressed to Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nawwaf, who is also the country’s ambassador to the U.K.

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More than a dozen women’s rights activists have been arrested since May 2018. The majority of them had campaigned for the right to drive and an end to the kingdom’s male guardianship system.

While several have since been freed, some remain jailed.

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In November, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accused Saudi Arabia of subjecting some of the female activists to torture, sexual harassment, and rape and death threats.

Saudi officials denied all the allegations in a statement reported by Al Jazeera.

“The government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia categorically and strongly denies the allegations made by them. The wild claims made, quoting anonymous ‘testimonies’ or ‘informed sources’, are simply wrong,” a November statement read.

In the open letter, the MPs and lawyers who formed the Detention Review Panel write that the allegations must be investigated, along with the detainees’ health conditions.

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“We would of course make representations on behalf of the Detainees that they should be subject to legal proceedings which meet international standards,” the letter reads.

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MP Crispin Blunt, who is the chair of the panel, wrote in a subsequent release that his team is looking for access to the prison where they are being held.

Blunt noted that Saudi Arabia is already facing “unprecedented scrutiny” over its affairs, referring to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

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“We are hopeful that with the cooperation of the Saudi authorities and access to the named detainees and their own accounts that we might at least be able to report a fast-improving situation as regards activists working to improve the overall human rights in the Kingdom,” he wrote.

Human rights lawyer Tayab Ali added to the panel’s statement, writing, “The women have also allegedly been denied access to their families, and their families are deeply concerned about the conditions in which they are being held.”

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The Detention Review Panel requested an “urgent response” from the Saudi ambassador by Jan. 9.

While Saudi officials did not respond to Reuters when asked about the open letter, the kingdom has responded to criticism over the detentions by saying other countries don’t have a right to interfere in the issue.

Criticism over the issue is what sparked a spat between the kingdom and Canada last year.

The rift began in August, when Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted concerns about the news that several social activists had been arrested, including Samar Badawi, a women’s rights activist who is the sister of imprisoned dissident blogger Raif Badawi, whose wife is a Canadian citizen and lives in Quebec.

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Freeland called for the release of the prisoners, and a day later, her department tweeted further criticism and called for the “immediate release” of Badawi.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister responded on Twitter, writing, “The negative and surprising attitude of #Canada is an entirely false claim and utterly incorrect.”

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— With files from Reuters

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