Fear mounts for activists as coronavirus spread in notorious Saudi prison


Conditions of activists held inside the sprawling  prison complex in the outskirts of Riyadh have raised concerns among their relatives as reports of COVID-19 cases and denial of medical treatment are putting prisoners’ lives at risk.

Al-Ha’ir prison, a 19m-sq-ft maximum-security facility south of the capital Riyadh, houses an estimated 5,000 prisoners, including members of the Saudi royal family and high profile human rights campaigners.

Family and friends of detainees held in al-Ha’ir say their fears have spiked in recent weeks, amid reports of two cases of COVID-19 inside the prison.

Princess Basmah bint Saud bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, a senior royal, known as an outspoken advocate for reform, is in a life-threatening condition inside the prison. Concerns for her health grew following the death in a Riyadh hospital last month of prominent rights activist Abdullah al-Hamid, formerly held in al-Ha’ir.

Two sources close to Princess Basmah, the youngest grandchild of King Saud who founded the Saudi state, say she is held in a room in al-Ha’ir prison with her 28-year-old daughter Suhoud.

“There are other princesses in there with her, not in cells but in rooms,” said one person close to the family. “She is not a criminal or a terrorist, but she’s been thrown in prison where criminals and terrorists are.”

The princess reportedly suffers from gastrointestinal issues, heart problems and osteoporosis that led her to seek treatment in Switzerland, but she was detained after being granted permission to travel.

“I think they’re hoping [she]will die,” said a second close contact of the family, in reference to the Saudi authorities controlling the princess’s detention. “They know about her health conditions.”

“She’s the first [senior]princess, the daughter of a king, to be thrown in prison in this way,” said the first contact. “Without action [being taken], she will die. It’s heartbreaking.”

Meanwhile, women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul has now marked two years in detention in al-Ha’ir over her campaign against the former ban on women driving and an end to the male guardianship system.

Hathloul was arrested in a May 2018 sweep of activists accused of contact with “foreign entities with the aim of undermining the country’s stability and social fabric”.

Family members say she is held in a cell roughly three by four metres, with brief daily access to a communal area but they say she has periodically been denied phone calls.

Hathloul’s family say the 30-year-old was censored during her previously regular phone calls. “She can’t share anything about the negative conditions or issues inside the prison, otherwise the authorities cut the call,” said Walid al-Hathloul, Loujain’s brother. “So it’s hard to tell what the real conditions are.”

The prison is famed for its luxurious rehabilitation wing, including a swimming pool and conjugal visits for convicted jihadists, but Walid al-Hathloul said that is not the experience of other detainees. “There are sections that look nice, but that’s not what Loujain sees,” he said.

The Saudi General Directorate of Prisons states that “healthcare is guaranteed for prisoners in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”, including protection from contagious diseases.

The Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington DC, which handles media requests, declined to comment on conditions inside al-Ha’ir and Basmah’s health when contacted by the Guardian.

Rights groups say that al-Ha’ir has long been associated with physical abuse. “The general criminal area of the prison is even worse in terms of overcrowding and poor sanitation,” said Josh Cooper of the Saudi rights group Al Qst. “There’s an extreme risk now in light of COVID-19 that the prison is overcrowded and lacks basic services.”

Cooper added that denial of medical treatment is used as a punishment, as well as the temporary transfer of political prisoners into the overcrowded general criminal prison. (Source: The Guardian)