Saudi Arabia accused of torture of high-profile political detainees

Human Rights Watch report cites prison guards who described ‘harrowing scenes’

Insider accounts have surfaced of alleged torture of high-profile Saudi political detainees, according to campaign group Human Rights Watch.

In a weekend statement headed "Saudi Arabia: New Details of Alleged Torture Leaked", HRW cites prison guards who described "harrowing scenes" of mistreatment of political detainees.

HRW says the Saudi government has “failed to independently and credibly investigate allegations that Saudi authorities tortured Saudi women’s rights activists and others detained in early 2018, including with electric shocks, beatings, whippings, and sexual harassment”.

The human rights group said it received text messages in January 2021 “from an individual identifying themself as a Saudi prison guard that provide descriptions of the torture and ill-treatment they and other prison guards witnessed interrogators commit against high-profile detainees in mid-to-late 2018”. The anonymous source relayed texts from other guards.


The guards’ accounts were from Dhabhan prison, north of Jeddah, and another location the guards identified as a secret prison. One guard wrote that prominent female rights campaigner Loujain al-Hathloul “was subjected to unprecedented sexual harassment” which he witnessed.

“They were relishing insulting her. They were mocking her that she is liberated and would not mind the harassment such as sticking their hands into her underwear or touching her thighs or spouting degrading words at her,” a guard wrote.

Ms Hathloul was arrested along with other female activists on May 15th, 2018, on a charge of “attempting to destabilise the kingdom” at a time when crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was enacting the very changes that she and others demanded. These included legalising women’s right to drive – three weeks after the arrests – and relaxing restrictive male guardianship in July 2019.

Ms Hathloul was conditionally freed in February after being sentenced last December to more than five years in prison.

Electric shocks

Another guard wrote that a woman activist “lost consciousness [during torture] and we were all terrified. We feared that she had died and that we would bear responsibility because the instructions were not to kill any of the detainees, men or women”.

A further text concerned activist Mohammed al-Rabea, who was detained with the women and sentenced to six years in prison, HRW says, “on a host of vague and spurious charges related to his activism”.

Mr Rabea “was tortured beyond his capacity to endure, especially when the interrogator learned that he suffers from back pain and so he started to get creative with his torture, targeting already painful locations,” a guard wrote.

A separate informant had earlier told HRW that Mr Rabea had been tortured for months with electric shocks, waterboarding, beatings, sleep and food deprivation and hanging upside down. An appeals court is set to decide on his case on July 27th.

HRW deputy Middle East and North Africa director, Michael Page, said "letting abusers off the hook sends the message that they can torture with impunity and never face accountability for such crimes".

Saudi officials did not respond to requests for comment on the report.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times