Saudi Arabia: Detained activists and prisoners of conscience in poor health and deprived of contact with their families


The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) is concerned that activists and prisoners of conscience in Saudi prisons are not being allowed regular contact with their family, and that they are being held in poor conditions which put their health at risk, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

GCHR recently received information about a case of an online activist who has been forcibly disappeared for over two years with almost no contact with his family. On 12 March 2018, plainclothes members of the General Directorate of Investigation in Saudi Arabia arbitrarily arrested Internet activist Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan without an official judicial warrant or providing any reason for the arrest. He was arrested at the main offices of the Saudi Red Crescent Society in the capital, Riyadh, where he works as an aid worker.

During continuous attempts, the family in Riyadh tried to communicate by phone with the Presidency of State Security and the General Directorate of Investigation. A full month after his arrest, a security official told them in one of these calls that he was detained without disclosing any additional information.

The General Directorate of Investigation is affiliated with the Presidency of State Security, which is a security and intelligence institution, established by royal order from King Salman bin Abdulaziz on 20 July 2017, and is linked to the King himself.

On 12 February 2020, the family finally received a single call from Al-Sadhan, who was accompanied by one of the security guards. The call lasted approximately one minute, during which time he told them that he was being held in Al-Ha'ir prison. The authorities did not confirm his location or allow his family to visit him, nor was he allowed to see a lawyer, and no specific charges have been filed against him.

Reliable sources, including the families of other detainees, confirmed that he was tortured in prison, and these reports have been repeated several times since his arrest.

Al-Sadhan is a 37-year-old graduate of the Department of Business Administration at the University of Notre Dame in California. He completed his studies at the end of 2013 and returned home the following year, according to his family, due to his love for his country and a desire to contribute to building a prosperous future for everyone as one of the nation's sons.

Al-Sadhan had a shadow account on Twitter, which is common in countries where civic space is totally closed and freedom of expression is penalised, such as Saudi Arabia. He used it to peacefully express his views in public affairs and support human rights issues. There is a firm belief by members of the Saudi human rights community that the Saudi authorities have recruited a network of some individuals in the United States, including some employees of Twitter itself. Members of the network have leaked information on 6000 Twitter accounts, including Al-Sadhan's account, which led to his arrest. Information about this network dates back to 2015 when the FBI notified Twitter that at least one of its employees was spying for Saudi Arabia, according to sources with knowledge of the investigation that followed.   

GCHR condemns the arbitrary arrest and detention of Al-Sadhan and considers it to be an act of enforced disappearance carried out by the Saudi authorities in clear violation of their obligations in accordance with local law and human rights treaties, as their duty is to protect citizens and not to forcibly detain them and endanger their lives.

Human rights activist Areej Al-Sadhan told GCHR, “I demand that we be allowed to immediately communicate with my brother Abdulrahman and that he be released as soon as possible. I also call on all concerned governments and United Nations mechanisms to ensure the application of human rights principles and to send international observers to visit my brother and the rest of the detainees who are victims; and to investigate the inhumane violations against them; and activate regulations that prevent Western companies from dealing with repressive governments such as the Saudi government unless they abide by human rights conventions. Silence on these grave violations has put the lives of many in danger, as they were subjected to arrest, torture and in many cases murder, and these must be investigated immediately.”

On 30 August 2020, Al-Sadhan wrote on her Twitter account “It’s 902 days since we last saw my brother #AbdulrahmanAlsadhan & 6+ months since the only time he was allowed to call.”

In another case of a prisoner being denied contact with her family, on 31 August 2020, human rights activist Alia Al-Hathloul, sister of prominent human rights defender Loujain Al-Hathloul, posted a tweet in which she stated, “My parents visited Loujain today. She was on a hunger strike for 6 days after acknowledging some detainees are allowed to call and not her. Her health was deteriorating extremely during her hunger strike.”

Reports have confirmed that Al-Hathloul has not been allowed to phone her family for an extended period of time since 09 June 2020, in addition to preventing visits during the six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, which the authorities have used as an excuse to put great pressure on her.

The authorities have placed her in solitary confinement since her arrest on 18 May 2018, and this is cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment that constitutes psychological torture.

Human rights activist Lina Al-Hathloul, another sister, was very distressed about her sister’s fate, telling GCHR: “I want my sister to be out of prison ALIVE!” This statement comes out of a growing concern over Loujain being held incommunicado for a lengthy period, while imprisoned in unknown conditions.

GCHR believes that all human rights defenders, whether inside or outside prison, in Saudi Arabia face life-threatening risks, as they are continuously and systematically targeted solely for exercising their legitimate and peaceful right to freedom of opinion and expression and their work in the human rights field.

GCHR calls on the Saudi authorities to:

  1. Immediately release Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan, Loujain Al-Hathloul, and all detained human rights defenders, activists and prisoners of conscience, without any conditions;
  2. Respect public freedoms, including freedom of expression online and offline, and protect the civil and human rights of all citizens without exception; and
  3. Ensure that all human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia are able, in all circumstances, to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals and without any restrictions, including judicial harassment.