As I was growing up in Saudi Arabia, the prison system was a source of horror stories. Women would disappear into one of the country’s prisons, never to be seen or heard from again. There were no trials, no legal process just women disappearing into a black hole.
- Where did they go?*
My aunt had been arrested after her husband divorced her and she refused to marry another man who had agreed to take care of all of her expenses until she died, at which point he could marry a younger woman if he wished. She was allowed out on bail but disappeared without warning before any trial could take place; none of us knew where she’d gone until years later when we found out that she’d been jailed for two years in Al-Hair Prison, where many Saudi prisoners are held.*
The Country’s Prisons
The prison system in Saudi Arabia is a place where people disappear.
When a woman is detained by the state, she disappears into the prison and is never heard from again. She does not get a trial, nor does anyone know what happened to her. The women who are disappeared are presumed to have been tortured and killed, but there is no proof of this because the government has taken away their rights as citizens to have any access to information about their cases or their whereabouts.
It’s difficult for an outsider to understand how such heinous acts could occur on such a large scale in one country how many women could be imprisoned without charge? How could they just go missing? Why would this happen at all?
On April 6th of 2018, My Life Changed Forever
On April 6th of 2018, my life changed forever.
I was arrested for doing nothing more than practicing my faith and learning about my history. I am a Canadian citizen who has lived in Saudi Arabia for over twenty years and has never been arrested before.
Arrival from Canada after spending the weekend with family there because I had printed out articles related to human rights violations against women in Saudi Arabia, which were considered “inciting” material by authorities.
You see, I was at home in Riyadh with my son and mother when government agents arrived at our house to arrest me. My son, who is a minor, was also arrested and taken to a juvenile detention facility. We were detained for several days without any access to legal representation or contact with family members until after we were transferred to Dammam Women’s Prison where I remain detained as of today.
I am one of several women who have been arbitrarily held in secret detention facilities across Saudi Arabia since May 15th the same day that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) embarked on an unprecedented tour of Asia. During these visits with other world leaders such as Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Jokowi), Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi; MBS has used his time touring each country’s capital city not just to promote economic development initiatives but also highlighting the supposed improvements within Saudi Arabia itself, particularly women’s rights under his leadership which he often claims are being implemented through Vision 2030: A Pathway To A Better Future For The Kingdom Of Saudi Arabia.
Secret Detention Facility
Over the last few weeks, dozens of women have been hauled away from their homes and taken to Saudi Arabia’s secret detention facilities. These women are related to men who have been detained. Their husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons have been held in jail without charge or trial since May 15 the day on which Saudi Arabia arrested 11 princes and scores of business people in a supposed anti-corruption sweep.
My mother and son were dragged out of my house simply because they are related to me. My husband has not been seen since then but we believe he is still alive because we have heard nothing about his death; it would be all over social media if he had died in prison-like many others who suffered this fate did not survive their time there at all
When you hear about the secret detention facilities in Saudi Arabia, you probably think of them as torture centers. You are correct, but there’s more to them than that. The secret detention facilities are used as a way to extract confessions from prisoners and other information that could be useful for the Royal family.
Torture is part of this process: it is used to break down prisoners and make it easier for them to confess or provide information on others involved in whatever plot they’re being accused of (or just generally disagreeing with). In some cases, they’ve even been known to use torture methods such as electric shocks on men who have not broken yet.
- They along with thousands of others were disappeared for months without charges, without access to attorneys, and without any contact with their families.
- For example, one woman who was detained in the Wadi al-Dahab facility told Al Jazeera that she was arrested after her husband called a number he thought was his wife’s on WhatsApp. The call had been made by Saudi authorities and when they answered the phone and said hello, they were taken into custody.*
In the end, their family members were told that the women had confessed to being in a relationship and received minimal sentences. But neither woman seems to have recovered from her time in prison. Their family members said that even years later, both women are still struggling with depression and PTSD, as well as anger toward Saudi authorities for what happened to them.
As one of the women’s relatives explained: “I don’t know how anyone can be happy after a nightmare like this… My daughter never told me exactly what she experienced [in prison]. She only said that she saw things there that no human should ever see.”
Outspoken about Women’s Empowerment
I have always been outspoken about women’s empowerment in my country. I have been arrested and detained before, but never for more than a few hours. These arrests were usually related to my activism on behalf of prisoners’ rights.
I am also an outspoken advocate for reform and the need for change within our judicial system.
The government is targeting women who out spoken women ernment is targeting women who are outspoken about women’s rights. The government is targeting women who are outspoken about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.
This is why I was targeted by the government; this is why my family was targeted by the government. They saw how I had become a voice for our cause, how we were organizing on social media, and trying to make changes from within our community.
But what has happened to my family being kidnapped by the state and detained for years without access to legal counsel or any form of due process is not unique to me or my family.
It’s happening all over Saudi Arabia, every day. Tens of thousands of people have been disappeared by the state for decades now, in secret detention facilities where they suffer torture, abuse, and sexual violence. Many have died there; some were never seen again after being tortured to death at their interrogators’ hands. Others were executed without charge or trial when their detention was deemed “exhausted” but no one knows if these people are dead yet because the Saudi government will not disclose any information about them or where they are being held at present (if they still live).
Times across Saudi Arabia
One of the most important things to keep in mind when reading this report is that the practice of disappearing women has been happening for decades. It started in the late ’80s, and it has continued with very few fluctuations. The government will use any means necessary to silence dissenters, activists, or anyone else who could pose a threat to their power structure. They’ve done so by imprisoning them without trial or even charging them with any crime; by claiming they were “led astray”; by “rehabilitating” them through torture, and now by sending them off into secret detention facilities where they are held until they are either executed or released due to pressure from international human rights organizations.
With tens of thousands of cases over several years and many more that went unreported, it’s clear that this is not an isolated incident or one-time occurrence but rather an ongoing policy by Saudi Arabian authorities.