Khaled Al-Omair and Saudi Arabia’s Abusive Prison Practices

On 12 April 2017, the Saudi Arabian government released human rights defender Khaled Al-Omair from prison, more than six months after the completion of his eight-year sentence. He had been imprisoned on charges including “breaking obedience with the ruler” and “embarking on a protest.” These charges related to his attempts to hold demonstrations protesting Israeli actions in Gaza in 2008. Al-Omair had officially completed his sentence on 5 October 2016, but Saudi authorities failed to release him at that time. During his detention, Saudi authorities reportedly subjected Al-Omair to torture. Taken as a whole, the Saudi government’s treatment of Khaled Al-Omair is demonstrative of the government’s mistreatment of prisoners and its troubling prison practices more generally.

Saudi Arabia does not release detailed information about prison conditions in the country or the number and distribution of its prison population. However, a 2013 study estimated that there were approximately 47,000 prisoners in the kingdom. According to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, central and local Saudi government authorities operate a total of approximately 110 prison facilities. A large number of inmates across these facilities are prisoners of conscience, including a number of human rights defenders. The kingdom has, for example, imprisoned the leadership of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), one of the country’s very few independent human rights organizations.

Reports of arbitrary detention and torture inside Saudi prisons and detention centers are widespread. In February 2017, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that Saudi authorities’ continued imprisonment of Ali al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher constitutes arbitrary detention. Moreover, all three young men were under the age of 18 when they committed their alleged crimes, and Saudi authorities reportedly tortured each of them into producing confessions. In a separate instance in July 2011, officials at Dammam General Prison reportedly poured anti-septic cleaning liquid down the throat of human rights activist Mekhlef al-Shammary. There are numerous other accounts of torture, coerced confessions, and abuse, including with regard to Khaled al-Omair, whom Saudi authorities reportedly subjected to long-term solitary confinement and blindfolding.

Many Saudi prisons suffer from severely overcrowded conditions. Reports of such conditions have been ongoing for many years. In 2009, The Guardian published an account of academic and journalist Syed Neaz Ahmad’s experience inside Saudi jails. Ahmad described being held in a facility in Jeddah with 1,500 other prisoners in “warehouse-like halls with no air conditioning, no fans, and temperatures rising to 50°C [122°F].” In another case, at the Jizan deportation center in August 2010, five detainees died from alleged asphyxiation due to overcrowding. In 2012, a leaked video allegedly recorded in Beriman prison in Jeddah again raised concerns about overcrowding, showing inmates packed tightly together across virtually every inch of floor space in one of the prison’s rooms. In May 2013, the head of the General Directorate of Prisons, Maj. Gen. Ali al-Harthi, admitted that central prisons in Riyadh, Mecca, and Jeddah had exceeded their capacity three times over.

Overcrowding in Saudi prisons is coupled with very poor living conditions, including unsanitary accommodations, inadequate medical care, and non-nutritious food. In some cases, overcrowding directly contributes to these conditions. In 2012, for example, a Saudi activist held in Khobar Prison reported that overcrowding had forced some prison inmates to sleep in bathroom stalls. The same individual described being provided with food that was barely cooked, including pieces of chicken with feathers still on them. Overcrowding has also reportedly contributed to the rapid spread of illness throughout prison populations, and sources consistently make note of prisoners’ difficulty in obtaining adequate medical care. The U.S. Department of State’s 2016 Human Rights Report for Saudi Arabia states that Saudi prisoners continue to lack prompt access to medical treatment, including access to medication.

Khaled Al-Omair’s case is also not the first instance in which Saudi authorities have continued to hold prisoners past the completion of their sentences. In a 2008 report, Human Rights Watch documented a wide variety of such cases, finding that extended detention is often the result of bureaucratic inefficiency and error. In one case in al-Ha’ir prison, a prisoner was allegedly held for three years after the completion of his sentence because authorities could not locate his official file. The file was eventually found propping open a window. Other prisoners reported being unable to challenge their continued detention due to an inability to provide proof of the length of their sentences. Still others claimed to have had their detention extended in order for prison authorities to finish administering the floggings stipulated in prisoners’ sentences. Saudi officials have suggested that overcrowding in the country’s prisons is in part due to these sorts of post-sentence detentions.

Saudi Arabia’s treatment of its prisoners and the conditions of many of its prisons contravene internationally-accepted standards for the treatment of prisoners. First adopted in 1957 before being revised and adopted as the Nelson Mandela Rules in 2015, the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners is the central framework used to assess prison conditions and prisoner treatment around the world. These wide-ranging rules address issue areas like health and sanitation, medical care, and respect for prisoners’ dignity. By torturing detainees and inmates, packing them together in over-crowded conditions, and restricting their access to adequate medical care, Saudi Arabia stands in clear violation of the Mandela Rules.

The international community must pressure Saudi Arabia to change its actions in this regard. In particular, states should begin by calling on the Saudi government increase the level of transparency surrounding its prison population and the conditions across the country’s detention facilities. Saudi Arabia must respect the dignity and human rights of its prisoners regardless of their crimes.

Phil Bracey is an Advocacy Intern at ADHRB.