For decades, Saudi authorities have been attempting to mute the feminist and women’s rights voices inside Saudi Arabia, especially those who dared to challenge the status quo and called for equality, including abolishing the guardianship system, and gender-based discrimination and segregation in the country. Since May 2018, a massive crackdown1 on Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) and women’s rights activists has been carried out by the Saudi authorities in plain view of the international community. Twice in 2018, United Nations special procedures called for the release of women’s rights defenders. On 27 June 2018, nine independent UN experts stated2: “In stark contrast with this celebrated moment of liberation for Saudi women, women’s human rights defenders have been arrested and detained on a wide scale across the country, which is truly worrying and perhaps a better indication of the Government’s approach to women’s human rights.” Shortly after, two more WHRDs were arrested, with more arrests in July and August, bringing the total to 21 men and women WHRDs known to have been arrested since mid-May 2018. There were likely more arrests that were not publicised by their families, and some detainees were held incommunicado. Six HRDs arrested in the same crackdown were released between May 2018 and January 2019.

Currently detained women’s rights defenders who were arrested in 2018 include Loujain Al-Hathloul, Aziza Al-Yousef, Eman Al-Nafjan, Nouf Abdelaziz, Dr. Hatoon Al-Fassi, Samar Badawi, Nassima Al-Sadah, Mohammed Al-Bajadi, Amal Al-Harbi, and Shadan Al-Anezi. Others cannot be named.

Despite the calls3 made by over 179 international and regional human rights organisations, civil society organisations (CSOs) and groups to release WHRDs and hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its human rights violations, the kingdom ignored the protests while continuing to carry out severe acts of violations against the human rights community. The death under torture following the disappearance4 of the prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi raised eyebrows on the extent of the impunity Saudi Arabia enjoys. The murder of Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018 confirms the institutionalised violations committed by the Saudi authorities inside and outside the country.

Saudi Arabia has never been reputed to show tolerance and respect for human rights, but there were hopes that as Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman rolled out his economic plan (Vision 2030), and finally allowed women to drive, there would be a loosening of restrictions on women’s rights and freedom of expression and assembly. However, prior to the driving ban being lifted in June, women’s rights defenders received phone calls warning them to remain silent. As the Vision 2030 plan started, it began to prove the thesis of GCHR’s Report that WHRDs in Saudi Arabia would cease to exist.

While international NGOs and UN experts continued to echo the valid concerns pertaining to the safety and well-being of the Saudi WHRDs inside prisons, the Kingdom’s state of denial during their 3rd cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) confirmed on social media and through media propaganda was shocking. This alarmed NGOs to push for further pressure and to consolidate efforts to hold the kingdom accountable for violations perpetrated with the utmost impunity and through obvious neglect of its international obligations under the international law. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia continues to retain its stature and to hold international positions such as a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) increased its advocacy on Saudi Arabia at the UN, issuing two reports, two UN submissions and one oral statement while holding several events at the UN HRC focusing on WHRDs detained in Saudi Arabia5. GCHR has been working tirelessly with a coalition of partner NGOs including two online campaigns to free Saudi WHRDs and end the sale of arms to the Kingdom. GCHR has also conducted two joint advocacy missions in New York and Geneva while strategising and implementing various activities to ensure that Saudi women are safe, protected, and will ultimately be freed; while continuing to demand their rights to freedom, equality and justice.

GCHR received reports confirming torture of WHRDs inside the Saudi prisons mid-November 2018. Yet, the dilemma of victims’ consent and for ethical considerations, the GCHR preferred to advocate bilaterally with allies and international actors; until to confirm that these women won’t be in further risk and are not subjected to further torture for revealing this newly obtained information. Therefore, GCHR in coalition with partners NGOs working on the Saudi WHRDs advocacy continued to lobby through various forms of diplomacy on different levels to gain support and plan for a pressure that can be put on the Saudi authorities internationally to set an end to the ongoing violations, release WHRDs and other human rights defenders and activists and ensure that accountability is blanket and unexclusive process.

This report aims at drawing on the reports received by GCHR and other human rights organisations on the torture of WHRDs. It also reflects briefly on the legacy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s use of torture as an institutionalised and systematic reprisal mechanism. This brief report archives the torture cases of WHRDs based on the first-hand reports received by GCHR, as well as facts confirmed by the family members of WHRDs, and reports by partners including ALQST and international NGOs.