A cross-party group of British lawmakers and lawyers is seeking access to detained female activists whom Human Rights Watch says may have been tortured and sexually harassed while in prison in Saudi Arabia.
The group has convened a panel to investigate the claims and produce testimony on the findings at the request of an anonymous Saudi citizen. A November report by the rights group alleged that those detained were flogged and given electric shocks. They were reportedly detained “for their role in the right to drive campaign and for advocating other freedoms,” according to Human Rights Watch.
UK Conservative Member of Parliament Crispin Blunt formally handed the request to speak with the detainees to the Saudi envoy to the United Kingdom, Prince Mohammed bin Nawwaf bin Abdulaziz, on Tuesday.
“There are credible concerns that the conditions in which the Saudi women activists are being detained may have fallen significantly short of both international and Saudi Arabia’s own standards. We make this request to the Saudi authorities so that we can assess for ourselves the conditions in which the Saudi women activists have been and are being detained today,” Blunt said Tuesday.
“No person should be subjected to the type of treatment that has allegedly been inflicted upon these women activists while in detention. The implications of activists being detained and tortured for exercising their freedom of speech and conducting peaceful campaigns is concerning for all individuals seeking to exercise their human rights in Saudi Arabia.”
The Saudi government previously denied the allegations of torture in a statement to CNN following the initial Human Rights Watch report.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s judiciary system does not condone, promote, or allow the use of torture. Anyone, whether male or female, being investigated is going through the standard judiciary process led by the public prosecution while being held for questioning, which does not in any way rely on torture either physical, sexual, or psychological,” a Saudi official said.
Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has faced increased international scrutiny following the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the country’s consulate in Istanbul late last year. The suspects include members of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s inner circle. The crown prince has denied any connection to the killing.
The scope of the “Detention Review Panel For Detained Women Activists in Saudi Arabia” is limited to investigating the condition and health of those named in the Human Rights Watch report: Loujain al‐Hathloul, Aziza al‐Yousef, Eman al‐Nafjan, Nouf Abdelaziz, Mayaa al‐Zahrani, Samar Badawi, Nassima al‐Saada, and Hatoon al‐Fassi, all women’s rights activists, as well as male supporters of the movement, including Ibrahim al‐Modaimeeg, Abdulaziz Meshaal and Mohammed Rabea.
The status of some of those activists led to a diplomatic dispute between Saudi Arabia and Canada last year, after a tweet from the Canadian Foreign Ministry voiced “grave concerns” about the treatment of women’s rights activists, including Badawi.
The Saudi government said it considered the Canadian position an assault on its sovereignty. It expelled the Canadian ambassador and froze all new trade and investment deals while state airline Saudia suspended flights to Toronto.
Badawi is one of the most high-profile women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia, a country governed by a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam that restricts the roles women can play in society. Women were only recently granted the right to drive and must get approval from a male guardian for most basic activities.
Badawi previously served seven months in jail in 2010 for disobeying her father, whom she said had physically abused her from the age of 14 after her mother died of cancer.
Her brother, Raif, has been behind bars since 2012, convicted of “insulting Islam” and sentenced to receive 1,000 lashes.