Government Should Extend Investigation to Prisons Across the Kingdom
April 27, 2007
These shocking videos shed light on the torture and ill-treatment in Saudi prisons. The Saudi government must take immediate steps to end these abuses and punish those responsible, whatever their rank.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East & North Africa director

The Saudi government should expand upon its promise to investigate a recent prison beating captured on video by conducting a comprehensive probe into alleged cases of torture, beatings and deaths from ill-treatment at prisons across the kingdom, Human Rights Watch said today.

Recent video footage of a prison guard beating prisoners al-Ha’ir Correctional Facility corroborates accounts of beatings collected by Human Rights Watch during a visit to the prison in November. On April 18, the Internet news site SABQ posted five video clips that it said were taken by a mobile telephone on April 12 at al-Ha’ir prison’s Ward 18, the same wing that Human Rights Watch had visited. The guards’ uniforms and the color and layout of the buildings appear identical to those seen by Human Rights Watch.

The videos show a prison guard repeatedly using what appears to a short piece of plastic to beat two prisoners on the palms of their outstretched hands and the soles of one prisoner’s feet. The clips show both prisoners writhing in pain.

“These shocking videos shed light on the torture and ill-treatment in Saudi prisons,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Saudi government must take immediate steps to end these abuses and punish those responsible, whatever their rank.”

Beatings and other forms of ill-treatment in Saudi prisons are far more common than the single incident captured in the video. In November, several prisoners at al-Ha’ir prison told Human Rights Watch that guards regularly beat them as punishment for perceived transgressions. One prisoner told Human Rights Watch: “I got into a fight. The guards came and beat us all. They made us lie down and beat us; they broke sticks on our backs.”

Guards often beat prisoners collectively, regardless of who was responsible for the perceived transgression, prisoners said. “Last month, a prisoner had an argument with a guard,” another prisoner told Human Rights Watch. “The guard brought everyone from the wing outside and beat them.”

Several other prisoners said guards had suspended them above the ground for prolonged periods. “If a prisoner complains about anything he is beaten,” said a third prisoner. “They also hang us by handcuffs with our feet suspended, or take our blankets.”

(Human Rights Watch has collected accounts from prisoners interviewed at al-Ha’ir prison in an appendix).

Saudi Arabia’s director of prisons, Ali al-Harithi, in an April 21 news report said the government had suspended the two guards identified in the video and opened an investigation into the incident. According to Reuters, al-Harithi described the torture scenes as “a form of meting out fatherly discipline, like teachers do in schools.”

Al-Harithi’s remarks give rise to concern about the seriousness of the official investigation and the extent to which Saudi officials tolerate abuse of prisoners as an acceptable mode of discipline.

“Saudi prison guards have no business hitting prisoners, whether as a form of 'fatherly discipline' or otherwise,” said Whitson. “Guards who beat prisoners are committing serious crimes.”

International law prohibits torture and other ill-treatment of persons in custody in all circumstances. As a party to the Convention Against Torture, Saudia Arabia is obligated to “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.” Saudi Arabian authorities must also ensure that anyone who alleges being subjected to torture “has the right to complain to, and to have his case promptly and impartially examined.”

Moreover, Human Rights Watch has collected accounts of 12 deaths in custody that allegedly resulted from ill-treatment and treatable illnesses in al-Ha’ir and other prisons and a detention facility (the appendix provides details). At al-Ha’ir, several prisoners independently told Human Rights Watch that two inmates had died because of inadequate medical care and three others as a result of beatings.

Prisoners at Buraiman prison in Jeddah told Human Rights Watch that seven prisoners had died, most as a result of tuberculosis. In late January, according to the Saudi Al-Watan newspaper, two prisoners died from tuberculosis in Jazan prison. Saudi authorities have not made public the results of their investigation into the deaths in Jazan prison.

In the deportation center in Jeddah, detainees told Human Rights Watch that a detainee’s infant had died because of the severe cold and lack of milk. A Bangladeshi man reportedly died after 25 days of a hunger strike protesting his deportation.

“The Saudi government is obligated to provide prisoners with adequate medical care and humane living conditions,” Whitson said. “It must also investigate the circumstances of deaths in custody and punish prison officials if they are found to be responsible.”

According to a March 9 report in al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper, the government-approved National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) recently expressed its disappointment over prison authorities’ slow response to its reports on prison conditions, including prisoners suffering from tuberculosis. On March 14, Al-Watan reported that NSHR’s deputy president Muflih al-Qahtani said that medical services were somewhat inadequate and required greater attention following his inspection of prisons in Medina and Jeddah.

The Saudi director of prisons, Ali al-Harithi, should formally recommend that the minister of interior, Prince Nayef, immediately suspend the director of al-Ha’ir Correctional Facility from his duties pending an investigation both into his alleged failure to ensure the safety and well-being of prisoners at al-Ha’ir and his alleged direct participation in beatings.

Human Rights Watch recommended that the Saudi Bureau of Investigation and Public Prosecution conduct an investigation into prison beatings and deaths in custody jointly with the National Society for Human Rights to ensure sufficient independence from officials in the prison service and the ministry of interior, to which both the prosecution and prison services report.

In addition, the Saudi director of prisons should also provide the families of prisoners who have died in custody with all details of the investigations, which article 23 of the Saudi Imprisonment and Detention Law mandates, and make these investigations public with the consent of the families.