Jailed Saudi women’s rights activists were subjected to torture, including waterboarding and electrocution, Saudi government officials tell the Wall Street Journal. Some of the torture was allegedly overseen by a close aide to Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who is also implicated in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The Saudi government began a crackdown on women’s rights activists last spring, paradoxically during the lead-up to lifting the kingdom’s infamous ban on women driving. The end of the driving ban had helped bolster Bin Salman’s short-lived pre-Khashoggi reputation as a modernizing reformer. The arrests were seen as a signal to Saudi civil society that reforms should be led by the country’s monarchy rather than activists.
Those arrested included Loujain al-Hathloul, a leading figure in the movement to lift the driving ban; and Samar Badawi, an internationally recognized campaigner against Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system, under which women require the permission of a male relative to travel, marry, or work in certain jobs. She is also the sister of liberal blogger Raif Badawi, who in 2015 was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for his writings.
According to the Journal, a human rights commission reporting to King Salman, Prince Mohammed’s father, has been interviewing prominent women’s rights activists in prison. Of the 18 detained, at least eight have been physically abused. The Journal reports:
Some of the most severe treatment was meted out to Ms. Hathloul, according to the Saudi officials and other people familiar with the women’s situation.
Mr. Qahtani personally oversaw her interrogation, which included waterboarding, people familiar with her situation said. “Saud al-Qahtani threatened to rape her, kill her and to throw her into the sewage,” one of those people said.
This corroborates earlier reporting from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, but it’s notable that it comes from Saudi officials and may be part of a larger post-Khashoggi damage control effort. Qahtani was the crown prince’s social media adviser and close confidante, and he allegedly oversaw the journalist’s brutal killing at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul via Skype. He is now under U.S. sanction, has been fired from his official position, and is reportedly a target of a separate Saudi investigation into the killing. As the kingdom scrambles to contain the surprising fallout from the Khashoggi incident, this latest reporting could be a sign of Saudi insiders trying to pin as many of the crown prince’s misdeeds as possible on expendable members of his entourage.
The initial arrests of the women last spring set off a diplomatic crisis with Canada, after the Saudis cut off diplomatic ties with the country after some fairly mild criticism from Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. (Raif Badawi’s wife is a Canadian citizen.) Justin Trudeau’s government has struggled to square its human rights concerns and intention to conduct a “feminist foreign policy” with his government support for a nearly $20 billion military hardware deal with Saudi Arabia, arguably the world’s most infamous women’s rights abuser. After much hemming and hawing, Trudeau told a reporter this week that Canada is looking for a way out of the deal. It’s yet another sign of how the Khashoggi killing has jumpstarted a debate that should have begun a long time ago.