This year, Saudi Arabia is holding the rotating presidency of the Group of 20 (G20), the world’s largest economies. The kingdom will use its presidency as a PR opportunity to expand its economic influence and attract foreign investment.
It will serve the Saudi authorities as yet another building block in their relentless efforts to depict a progressive and modernising image of the kingdom and deflect attention away from its appalling human rights record. But the image the Saudi authorities are trying so hard to portray could not be further from the reality on the ground.
Reports that emerged in late 2018 of the gruesome torture of Saudi women rights defenders shone a light on the modern-day torture chambers operating in the kingdom, and a legal system that instead of protecting its victims shields the perpetrators with a veil of impunity.
The female activists suffered beatings, flogging and electric shocks. One female detainee was told that her child had died, in an attempt to psychologically break her. Others were sexually assaulted. At least one woman attempted suicide on several occasions as a result.
While this was clearly a particularly worrying development, given that the torture of women was previously unheard of in Saudi Arabia, the practice itself is widespread in the country today, and takes many shapes and forms.
Torture is used during interrogation to extract coerced confessions, which are then often admitted at court and used as sole evidence to convict and sentence individuals to long prison terms. Individuals are also subjected to acts of torture as a punishment while in detention.
Moreover, torture commonly takes place in the context of enforced disappearance, where an individual is held at an unknown location for anywhere between a few days and several years without access to a lawyer or their family.
Such was the case for Yemeni journalist Marwan Al Muraisy, who was arrested by security forces on June 1, 2018, and then not seen or heard of until May 15, 2019, when he first called his family to inform them that he was being held in Al Ha’ir Prison.
Similarly, humanitarian aid worker Abdulrahman Al Sadhan was arrested on March 12, 2018, from his workplace at the headquarters of the Saudi Red Crescent in Riyadh, but it was only after almost two years of disappearance that he was finally allowed a one-minute phone call to assure his family that he was still alive. However, to this day his family have neither been officially told where he is being held, nor why he was arrested, or if and when they will be able to see him again.
Although Saudi Arabia ratified the UN convention against torture in 1997, domestic legislation has not been brought in line with international standards and fails to offer sufficient legal safeguards. The frequent denial of access to legal counsel, family visits and adequate medical care create a conducive environment and increase the likelihood of torture.
The revised counter-terrorism law of 2017 further opened the door to prolonged and even unlimited periods of incommunicado detention, in which individuals are denied access to family members, an attorney, or an independent physician. This facilitates the practice of torture and ill-treatment, and renders individuals accused under the Counter-terrorism Law extremely vulnerable to torture.
While mechanisms to raise torture allegations formally exist, they serve more as window-dressing than as an actual means of recourse for victims. Torture allegations fail to be investigated, and perpetrators need have no fear of consequences – unlike those who raise such allegations, as the case of human rights defender Khaled Al Omair shows.
Al Omair was actually re-arrested in 2018 after officially filing a complaint that he had been tortured during a previous prison sentence. This illustrates the reprisals individuals may face when pursuing torture allegations, as well as the culture of impunity that applies to public officials who commit acts of torture and other ill-treatment.
In a report published following his country visit to Saudi Arabia in 2017, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism stated: “The failure of Saudi Arabia to provide minimum procedural safeguards during detention and interrogation, and its judicial practice of admitting coerced confessions into evidence, strongly suggests that the practice [of torture] is officially endorsed.”
He further noted that although more than 3,000 allegations of torture were formally recorded between 2009 and 2015, he was not aware of a single case in which an official had been prosecuted.
Given the systematic torture being practised in the kingdom today, the Saudi authorities should not be rewarded with the hosting of the G20 or similar events, which they will only exploit to try to whitewash their human rights record and escape further international scrutiny.