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A Bitter Message from Saudi Jails to the External World

Over the past two weeks, the Saudi state-run and privately-owned media outlets have been covering the so-called “Time Management Program Pavilions” festival for prison inmates, in an attempt to whitewash the Kingdom’s poor human rights record and increasingly bad reputation.

Slick, heavily produced videos showcasing Saudi prison cells were also broadcasted during the event, in addition to music shows performed by prisoners and their families. Female prisoners who were previously subjected to enforced disappearance also participated in the event.

The festival was organised by the notorious State Security Agency as part of its activity program in the Saudi prisons, including Al-Ha’ir prison in Riyadh and Al-Tarfiya prison in Qassim. Similar events were previously held in Abha, Dammam and Dhahban prisons in Jeddah.

The event’s caricature of an idyllic rehabilitative life in Saudi prisons covers up a deeply sinister reality of the Kingdom’s abusive prison system, and is a crude attempt to erase the lived trauma of thousands of prisoners, males and females.

Instead of declaring real reforms and radical changes, such as releasing the political prisoners, the State Security Agency forced the prisoners to participate in the event and to give falsified statements about their detention conditions.

Last April, the political detainee Yasmine Al-Ghafaili was forced to appear in a televised interview with a state-run TV channel in an attempt to promote “Time Management Program Pavilions”. During the TV interview, Al-Ghafaili thanked the security authorities’ quick response to the inmates’ demands to improve their detention conditions, by launching entertainment activities.

Al-Ghofaili was arrested in May 2021 for her political opinions, anti-regime tweets and her defence of political detainees. She was using  an anonymised pseudonym before being identified and arrested.

In a similar incident, the imprisoned activist Asmaa Al-Subaie, who was subjected to enforced disappearance for more than a year, appeared in this year’s “Time Management Program Pavilions” events, singing on stage and giving falsified statements about her detention conditions.

The imprisoned activist Rakan Al-Asiri also appeared during the event for the first time since his arrest two years ago for criticising Saudi normalising ties with the Israeli occupation. Al-Asiri was filmed giving falsified statements about the detention condition at Al-Ha’ir prison.

Social media activists affirmed that the broadcasted videos were filmed in hotel halls and not in prison cells as claimed.

It is worth to mention that Al-Ha’ir prison, which the authorities seek to promote as a positive example for Saudi reform measures, is the same prison where the human rights defender Abdullah Al-Hamid breathed his last after years of deliberate medical negligence.

Al-Ha’ir Prison is also the same prison where feminist activist Loujain Al-Hathloul – who was released in February 2021 – was stripped of all her human rights, and subjected to the most horrific types of psychological and physical torture, sexual harassment, rape and beheading threats, and other serious human rights violations.

The event came amid increasing international criticism of the Saudi prison conditions. Most recently was a report carried out by Grant Liberty, a human rights charity,  and published by the Independent saying that prisoners held for opposing the government in Saudi Arabia are being murdered, sexually assaulted and inflicted with “sheer” brutality.

The report exposed the Saudi overt attempts to whitewash prison conditions in the kingdom by forcing prisoners of conscience to make statements that are not related to reality.

The Saudi authorities resorted to such attempts over the past years to whitewash the abuse and torture reports. In 2018, journalist Abdul Aziz Al-Qassem has published an interview he allegedly conducted with a number of political prisoners, including Muhammad Al-Saidi, Sheikh Salman Al-Awda and Awad Al-Qarni.

According to the interview, the prisoners denied being subjected to torture or ill-treatment, stressing that Sheikh al-Awda’s isolation will come to an end in a few weeks, a promise never met since his arrest five years ago.

The late journalist Jamal Khashoggi had earlier slammed Saudi attempts to whitewash its human rights record via such interviews, saying: “Publishing an interview with a political prisoner is a flagrant violation. If this was the case in the UK, the newspaper would be forced to apologise and remove the interview.”

In this regard, we confirm that the alleged luxurious prison conditions can never justify political prisoners’ arrest. A large number of female detainees in al-Tarfia Prison should have never been detained in the first place for legitimately exercising the freedoms that all people are entitled to.

We further stress that such reports broadcasted by state-run media outlets cannot be trusted as a proof to the prison conditions, as they have long been used to launch incitement campaign against critical voices.

We also stress the need for a UN investigation into the real reasons that forced the activist Al-Ghafeili to appear in a pro-regime video that only aims to whitewash the Saudi notorious human rights record.

Real changes can only be achieved by releasing all political prisoners, approving human rights initiatives based on democracy, and holding accountable those responsible for the human rights violations against political prisoners.

Such events are only a bitter message from Saudi jails to the whole world, saying that no freedom is here. If you speak out, you will be arrested, torture, and forced to thank authorities for being behind bars and for the inhuman conditions you are held in.

We assert that nothing can justify the prisoners’ participation in such events except of being subjected to torture and death threats.

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