Days after Saudi Arabia announced it would allow women to drive in September 2017, blogger and activist Eman al-Nafjan wrote an uplifting column on CNN.
Praising the tenacity of women’s rights activists such as Loujain al-Hathloul, she said: “Other issues seem conquerable. The biggest issue at the moment is the guardianship system.”
Eight months later, al-Nafjan, Loujain al-Hathloul, and other women’s rights activists and male allies were arrested.
They became victims of a widespread online and offline smear campaign, accusing them of trying to destabilise the country and incite public opinion.
Since their arrest, there have been allegations of prisoners being tortured – with reports of lashings and electric shocks while in custody.
Three Saudi Muslim scholars who are linked to the Sahwa, or the Awakening movement, who are reportedly on death row and could be executed in days, are also believed to have suffered in prison.
Salman al-Awdah was hospitalised as a result of solitary confinement, according to Amnesty International, Awad al-Qarni health has also deteriorated, according to activists, while Ali al-Omari has reportedly suffered burns and injuries all over his body as a result of electric shocks during solitary confinement for more than a year.
Adam Coogle, Saudi Arabia researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Al Jazeera: “You have serious allegations of torture by investigators. This is something you will frequently hear from other human rights activists as well.”
Among these prisons are al-Haer in Riyadh, Dhahban near Jeddah, and Dammam in the Eastern Province.
Women’s rights defenders, protesters from the predominantly Shia Muslim minority Eastern Province, and other dissidents often stand trial at the Specialised Criminal Court,the kingdom’s counterterrorism court.
“Most human rights activists and dissidents are in [both] Mabahith-run prisons or general prisons,” Yahya Assiri, a Saudi activist who founded the human rights organisation Al Qst, told Al Jazeera.
While general prisons are run by the Ministry of Interior, maximum security prisons are headed by the police agency of the Presidency of the State Security, commonly known as the Mabahith.
Conditions in the general prisons are abysmal and worse than in the maximum security facilities, said Assiri, adding that corporal punishment is common while corruption has fuelled an illicit drug smuggling trade.
“These facilities are far more outdated than maximum security prisons, and cells are often overcrowded,” he said.
In its 2018 annual report, Al Qst claimed that authorities forced prisoners to sleep in the toilets.
Essam Koshak, an activist and computer engineer was arrested in January 2017 for speaking out against the male guardianship system on Twitter, and sentenced to four years in prison followed by a four-year travel ban.
Similarly, activist Issa al-Nukheifi was held in pre-trial detention in Mecca General Prison without any charges presented. At the Specialised Criminal Court, he was sentenced to six years in prison followed by a six-year travel ban over Twitter posts criticising the Saudi royal family and government. He is also being held at al-Haer.
Though conditions at Mabahith–run facilities are relatively better, Assiri said that overall, prisons built and administered for detainees suspected of terrorism or other extreme security charges are “extraordinarily worse than before”.
Although several activists have been temporarily released as their trials proceed, it is expected that they could face 20 years in prison, as per Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism law.
Saudi Arabia has acceded to the UN Convention Against Torture – with reservations, but reports from human rights organisations and testimonies indicate that systematic torture is widespread with impunity.
We have seen this happen before, but not at this kind of scale. It's the most oppressive era we have witnessed.
According to Al Qst, while no independent and private visits to prisons have been allowed, there are mounting allegations that prisoners are being tortured during interrogations while being held at maximum security facilities.
Assiri told Al Jazeera that he has documented a wide array of harrowing torture methods, including electrocution, waterboarding and suspending victims from the ceiling by their wrists.
Al Qst’s 2018 report said that prominent reformers and women’s rights activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, Samar Badawi, and at least six others, were subjected to “brutal” physical and psychological torture.
Amnesty International has said it received testimonies last November of alleged torture of detained women’s rights activists, including sexual harassment by masked men, in Dhahban Prison. The victims have claimed that as a result they struggled to walk, shook uncontrollably and had marks on their bodies. One reportedly attempted to take their own life.
More recently, an internal medical document reportedly prepared for the Saudi authorities, intercepted by The Guardian in March, suggested that the health of some 60 prisoners was so dire they needed to be transferred to a medical facility.
The newspaper cited cases of malnutrition and prisoners having bruises, cuts, burns and other marks on their bodies.
“We believe that at least one – if not all – of these reports is accurate,” Coogle told Al Jazeera, adding that he has documented similar cases in maximum security prisons in the Eastern Province, where political dissidents from the country’s Shia Muslim minority are often held before trials and after being convicted.
“We have heard pretty nasty stories about what happens there,” he said.
Increasing reports of torture being used in prisons come as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is commonly known as MBS, prepares to rule the kingdom. The young leader is widely believed to be leading efforts to stifle dissent.
“We have seen this happen before, but not at this kind of scale,” said Hala al-Dosari, a Saudi scholar and activist at New York University’s Center of Human Rights and Global Justice, adding that MBS’s strategy is founded on increasing crackdowns in parallel with a global public relations campaign. “It’s the most oppressive era we have witnessed.”
Omaima al-Najjar, a Saudi feminist, blogger, and political refugee in Italy, told Al Jazeera that she has witnessed more self-censorship in recent months.
“I used to frequently read modest critiques of the government in some newspapers such as Al-Watan, but now, you don’t see that at all anymore,” she said, noting the October 2018 assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Turkey.
“There were discussions among ordinary people in public spaces about what happened with Khashoggi,” al-Najjar said. “But the conversation came to a complete standstill the moment Saudi admitted responsibility.”
As long as they think they have the US administration in their pocket, they can do whatever they want.
However, the international community has not been entirely silent, following Khashoggi’s assassination and as the Saudi-led coalition continues to attack Yemen.
The United States has issued travel bans against 16 Saudis and their immediate families linked to MBS. A handful of European states, Germany, Belgium, Finland, and Norway, have suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies as a result of its actions in Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s key arms dealers, the US, France, the United Kingdom, and Canada have not ended sales yet.
Al-Dosari believes these measures are a positive start, but not sufficient to deter further human rights violations. She hopes the international outrage over the Khashoggi scandal and atrocities in Yemen will result in more attention on the kingdom’s domestic affairs.
“I think that [the Khashoggi killing] was a moment of clarity for so many people,” she said. “It set the record of what the nature of the regime is in Saudi Arabia, even for Saudis – not just the international community.”
Looking ahead, analysts have said that MBS’s future relies heavily on the support of US President Donald Trump and his administration, especially since the US leader issued strong support after Khashoggi was murdered.
“As long as they think they have the US administration in their pocket,” said Coogle, “they can do whatever they want.”