Over the course of last summer, a dozen women were rounded up and incarcerated in Dhahban – a maximum security prison on the western Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia – for the crime of petitioning their kingdom for women’s rights.
The women are all well-known in activist circles for continuing to fight against the kingdom’s male guardianship system, which requires women to obtain consent of a male relative prior to making decisions. They also fought for — and eventually won — the right for women to drive cars.
For these dangerous dissenting ideas against the absolute monarch, they are now branded as traitors and considered an imminent threat to national security. They face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
That is, if they survive detainment.
Who Needs International Law?
Human rights group Amnesty International began reporting that the women were being subjected to “sexual harassment, torture and other forms of ill-treatment during interrogation,” and calling for independent inspection and investigation of practices at Dhahban.
Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East research director, released a scathing report demanding attention:
“Saudi authorities are directly responsible for the wellbeing of these women and men in detention. Not only have they been deprived them of their liberty for months now, simply for peacefully expressing their views, they are also subjecting them to horrendous physical suffering”.
And that’s when a cross-party panel of three British Members of Parliament decided to get involved. Layla Moran, a liberal Democrat, Crispin Blunt, a conservative and stalwart defender of Gulf monarchies, and Labour member Paul Williams rounded out the ad-hoc committee and found they have one major commonality: Saudi Arabia is horrifically abusing these female detainees.
“The Saudi women activist detainees have been treated so badly as to sustain an international investigation for torture. Denied proper access to medical care, legal advice or visits from their families, their solitary confinement and mistreatment are severe enough to meet the international definition of torture.”
According to independent testimony, the women have been sleep-deprived, hung from the ceiling, and subjected to electrocution and flogging, leaving some unable to walk or stand properly. Some are scarred and bruised, and many have difficulty with shaking and other outward signs of the effects of torture.
And all because they want to experience a modicum of what Western nations so blithely refer to has human rights.
As Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was ordained as the kingdom’s de facto leader in June of 2017, the Western world saw a positive, progressive change was in the works. He lifted the ban on women driving, whacked a few religious zealots who dared criticize this specific decision, and allowed Hollywood blockbuster movies to be seen in theaters. The world leaders fawned over the young royal expecting greater things to follow.
But they didn’t. Instead, a journalist named Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated and most fingers pointed to bin Salman. Khashoggi, once a friend of the royal family, had become its biggest critic.
And now at least a dozen women are behind bars without receiving formal charges, and languishing in a male, radical Islamic laden environment, hoping for the world to come to their rescue.
Perhaps that is just what Blunt, the Saudi’s former staunch ally, is about to do on an international scale, as he warned a few days ago:
“Torture is a crime of universal jurisdiction and no nation that can claim to be a liberal democracy can in all conscience allow such heinous crimes to go unanswered. So of course we must evaluate our ties with Saudi Arabia. The attitude and the actions of the kingdom cannot be tolerated and it has to be seen how our government will recast its relations with Saudi Arabia.”
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