(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia has denied some prominent detainees contact with their family members and lawyers for months, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter requesting access to the country and private prison visits with detainees. The situation raises serious concerns for the detainees’ safety and well-being.
Saudi authorities have banned in-person visits with prisoners across the country since March 2020 to limit the spread of Covid-19. But Saudi activists and other sources say that the authorities have also unduly denied numerous imprisoned dissidents and other detainees regular communication with the outside world.
“Saudi authorities appear intent on making certain detainees and their loved ones suffer even further by denying them the ability to hear each other’s voices and know for certain they are ok,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “All prisoners should be allowed unfettered communication with their families and the world outside their prison cells, but especially so during these trying times.”
A family member of a leading women’s rights activist told Human Rights Watch they have not received phone calls from their detained relative in over two months. A relative of a prominent imprisoned cleric, Salman al-Awda, said the family has not heard from him since May.
Family members of another prominent women’s rights activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, said that the authorities finally allowed her parents to visit on August 31, after she spent almost three months in incommunicado detention. They said she had begun a hunger strike six days before the visit after learning that some other detainees had been allowed to call their families. Saudi authorities have detained all three for over two years or longer in what informed sources indicate are abusive conditions, while they face repeatedly adjourned trials based on charges that violate their basic rights.
According to lawyers representing the former crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, he has been detained without charge since his arrest in March, and his current whereabouts are unknown. While the prince has occasionally been allowed to make calls to family members, some of which were reportedly made under duress, the lawyers said that he has been denied visits with family members since his arrest and his personal doctor since his initial period of detention. The lawyers said they do not know whether the prince has received treatment for his diabetes and that there are serious concerns about his well-being and health.
Saudi authorities arrested al-Hathloul along with a number of other prominent Saudi women’s rights activists in May 2018, marking the beginning of a brutal crackdown on the women’s rights movement in Saudi Arabia. For the first three months, the authorities held her incommunicado, without access to her family and lawyer. In August, the authorities embarked on a second wave of arrests.
In November 2018, human rights organizations began reporting accusations that Saudi interrogators had tortured al-Hathloul and at least three other detained women, including with electric shocks and whippings, and had sexually harassed them.
Saudi Arabia brought charges against several women’s rights advocates, including al-Hathloul, that appear almost entirely related to their human rights activities and opened their trials in March 2019. As of August 2020, more than a year since, none of them had been sentenced and no new hearing dates have been set.
Al-Awda, 63, was among the first of dozens of people detained in mid-September 2017 by the Presidency of State Security, an agency established only months before, following Mohammad bin Salman’s appointment as crown prince. Al-Awda was held in solitary confinement, with no lawyer and a limited ability to contact family members.
In September 2018, Saudi prosecutors sought the death penalty against him on a host of vague charges related to his political statements, associations, and positions. None of the charges refer to specific acts of violence or incitement to violence. His relative said that he remains in solitary confinement, that his trial has been suspended since late 2019, and that his hearings have been postponed numerous times without explanation. Since May, Saudi prison authorities have denied him all contact with his family, leaving them seriously concerned for his health.
Contact with the outside world is an essential right of prisoners. International standards dictate that prisoners must be allowed to “communicate with their family and reputable friends at regular intervals, both by correspondence and by receiving visits.”vLimitations on contact and movement should be proportionate and measured, and a prosecutor or prison director may not arbitrarily withdraw a prisoner’s rights to such contact. International standards require that “communication of the detained or imprisoned person with the outside world, and in particular his family or counsel, shall not be denied for more than a matter of days.”
Even before the pandemic, Human Rights Watch had documented that prison administrations would often halt prisoners’ communications with relatives without explanation and would heavily monitor calls when they do allow them, cutting the lines if prisoners tried to discuss their cases or complain about detention conditions. Some prisoners also said that phone calls are usually restricted to 2 to 10 minutes.
Saudi Arabia has recorded a steady rise in Covid-19 cases since March 2, with 303,973 cases and 3,548 deaths recorded by August 20. Infectious diseases like Covid-19 pose a serious risk to populations in closed institutions like prisons and detention centers. In Saudi Arabia’s prisons, where human rights groups have long documented ill-treatment, overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and denial of adequate medical care, it is virtually impossible to adequately protect the mental and physical health of already vulnerable prisoners in case of an outbreak.
On April 24, a leading Saudi human rights figure, Abdullah al-Hamid, 69, died while serving a long prison term. The Saudi human rights organization ALQST reported that al-Hamid’s health condition had deteriorated in recent months, and that the authorities had delayed a heart operation a doctor told al-Hamid he needed in early 2020. ALQST said that authorities took steps to prevent al-Hamid from discussing his health condition with his family. He suffered a stroke on April 9 and remained hospitalized in a coma until his death.
On July 19, a writer and journalist, Saleh al-Shehi, died in the hospital two months after his release from detention. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has called for an independent international investigation to determine whether there is a link between his detention conditions and his death from an illness that has not been formally identified but that some local media outlets said was Covid-19. Saudi authorities released Al-Shehi from prison on May 19 without explanation after he had served two and a half years of a five-year sentence on speech-related charges.
Saudi authorities should promptly allow independent international monitors to enter the country, regularly monitor prison and detention facilities, carry out impartial investigations into allegations of torture and suspicious deaths in detention, and conduct private and regular visits with prisoners, Human Rights Watch said.
“Following the devastating deaths of prominent detainees in suspicious circumstances, Saudi Arabia’s allies should demand that they immediately release all those unjustly detained for exercising their basic rights before it’s too late,” Page said. “The families of detainees held incommunicado should not have to spend another day anxiously wondering what has become of their relatives.”