Rights groups call for access to Saudi detainees

Detainees include prominent figures held in anti-corruption campaign and high-profile women's rights activists.

    Rights groups have called on Saudi Arabia to grant them access to detainees in the kingdom a day after British parliamentarians threatened to publish their own report detailing allegations of mistreatment unless Riyadh allows them in by next week.

    Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Friday called on Saudi Arabia to allow independent monitors to meet detainees, including women's rights activists who were allegedly tortured and prominent figures held in an anti-corruption campaign.

    International scrutiny of Saudi Arabia's human rights record and its role in the Yemen war has intensified in the wake of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the kingdom's Istanbul consulate last October.

    The United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions had told the Reuters news agency on Thursday she would travel to Turkey next week to head an "independent international inquiry" into the murder.

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    Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has denied allegations that he ordered the murder, is pushing ambitious reforms in a bid to transform the kingdom's economy and society.

    But they have been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent and more assertive regional policies.

    The Gulf Arab state, an absolute monarchy where public protests and political parties are banned, says it does not have political prisoners and denies torture allegations. Officials have said monitoring of activists is needed to ensure social stability.

    Despite ending a ban on women driving last year, over a dozen women's rights activists were arrested starting in May, most of whom had campaigned for the right to drive and an end to the kingdom's male guardianship system.

    Amnesty said it had documented 10 cases of torture and abuse while the activists were held at an undisclosed location last summer.

    Lynn Maalouf, Middle East research director for Amnesty, said the women detainees were reportedly tortured during the first three months after their arrest. 

    "We do not have confirmed reports," she told Al Jazeera from Beirut. "The lack of information, the lack of ability to verify these reports highlights the urgent need for access to independent monitors.

    "If the Saudi authorities are sincere in their narrative of being reformist, then this should be the beginning of the conversation - access to independent monitors should be the starting point." 

    HRW said monitors should also get access to princes and businessmen still being detained after scores of the country's business elite were rounded up in November 2017 on Prince Mohammed's orders in a campaign that critics decried as a shakedown and power play.

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    Several of those detainees, including Amr Dabbagh and Bakr bin Laden, were released earlier this week, but others still believed to be held include former Riyadh Governor Prince Turki bin Abdullah, Saudi-Ethiopian billionaire Mohammed al-Amoudi, and former economy minister Adel Fakieh.

    HRW said the kingdom's Human Rights Commission and public prosecutor, both government entities, lacked the independence to conduct a credible and transparent investigation.

    "Saudi Arabia's internal investigations have little chance of getting at the truth of the treatment of detainees, including prominent citizens, or of holding anyone responsible for crimes accountable," said Michael Page, deputy director of HRW Middle East.

    Saud al-Qahtani, an adviser to Prince Mohammed who was fired for his role in the Khashoggi murder, reportedly oversaw the torture of at least one woman activist and the interrogation of some detainees in the anti-corruption campaign.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies