An unprecedented leak from Saudi Arabia exposes torture of dissidents

Six months after the death of Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident and Washington Post columnist killed at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul by agents of the Saudi government, there has been little information about what will become of Khashoggi’s killers. Last month, the US State Department called Khashoggi’s death a human rights violation in its annual human rights report, but stopped short of implicating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Khashoggi’s death; the Trump administration has long resisted implicating Mohammed bin Salman, citing insufficient evidence, and Trump himself has declined to address the crown prince’s involvement in the assassination, focusing instead on the US’s continued business relationship with Saudi Arabia and a mutual opposition to Iran.

Khashoggi’s death did not occur in a vacuum. Beginning in 2017, King Salman has cracked down on the press, demonstrating an increasingly intolerant attitude toward journalists under the guise of combating extremism and corruption in the already-heavily censored country hostile to reporters and political dissidents. This context makes a new report from The Guardian all the more unusual.

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New leaked medical reports from Saudi Arabia confirm that political prisoners in Saudi Arabia, especially women, have been severely mistreated, despite denials of torture from the Saudi government. Notes from the medical reports, which were prepared for King Salman and leaked to The Guardian, detail records of malnutrition, wounds, bruising, burns, and cuts on political prisoners; in one case, a female prisoner lost half of her body weight. The Committee to Protect Journalists notes that four prisoners among those named in the report are journalists: Zuhair Kutbi, Hatoon al-Fassi,Fahd al-Sunaidi, and Adel Benaimah.

The rarity of the leaked reports given to and reported on by The Guardian can’t be overstated. The state of repression within the kingdom does not lend itself to leaks, and The Guardian’s report confirms our worst fears about how the kingdom treats those who speak out against it. In recent years, the culture of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia has not only repressed dissent and journalism, but has also weaponized state channels that should be focused on terrorism to silence reporters instead. In 2018, columnist Saleh al-Shehi was sentenced to five years in prison after he “insulted the royal court,” ostensibly by commenting on allegations of corruption within the country in his writing and on television. He was sentenced by a specialized criminal court created with the intent of prosecuting cases pertaining to terrorism. Instead, that court is used to try journalists. “It’s not just [Crown Prince Salman],” Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi exile and critic of the kingdom, told CPJ last year. “The Saudi motto of operating is ‘no private enterprise in politics is allowed.’ You can’t come and pretend you have some role to play. We are the only ones who can say, do or act in terms of politics. Anyone who crosses that line would be arrested.”

The medical reports, which The Guardian reports will be given to King Salman with recommendations to possibly pardon all the prisoners, or at least those who have serious health issues, come after claims that some female activists who have been jailed have been subjected to lashings and electric shocks while in custody. They represent the first documented evidence from inside the kingdom that political prisoners face severe physical abuse. While the government officially and consistently denies allegations of mistreatment and torture, the leaked medical reports paint another picture entirely.

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More about reporting in Saudi Arabia:

  • According to The Washington Post’s Greg Miller, Jamal Khashoggi’s children have received homes worth millions and pay of $10,000 a month in Saudi Arabia as compensation for their father’s death.
  • In a Washington Post op-ed, Columbia University president Lee Bollinger outlines the ways in which US prosecution could, and should, be brought against Khashoggi’s killers.
  • Via CPJ, an in-depth look at the repressive environment for reporters and dissidents in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “new” Saudi Arabia.

Other notable stories:

  • The City, a non-profit newsroom covering New York City, launches today. Led by editor in chief Jere Hester, a New York Daily News alum and former director of the NYCity News Service at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, The City seeks to reinvest in local coverage at a time when many New York-based publications have scaled back or closed outright.
  • YouTube rejected an internal proposal from employees to prioritize vetted news sources and minimize conspiracy-theory videos after the Parkland shooting, according to an investigation by Bloomberg’s Mark Bergen. Executives chose to prioritize engagement over changing the recommendation algorithm, per employees at Google and YouTube.
  • More than 200,000 people subscribed to Apple News+ in its first 48 hours—more than magazine app Texture, which Apple bought a year ago, had at its peak, per a report in The New York Times.
  • Ahead of India’s upcoming election, Facebook says it removed over 800 Indian and Pakistani Pages, accounts, and Groups for spreading misinformation and propaganda. The company is also launching a tip line to help curb misinformation spread on WhatsApp in the country.
  • In the wake of the Christchurch shooting, a Motherboard investigation found that YouTube continued to host neo-Nazi propaganda and podcasts. After an inquiry, YouTube demonetized several videos, but did not delete them.
  • The latest version of the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, sponsored by sponsored by Rep. David Cicilline, chairman of the House antitrust subcommittee, and Rep. Doug Collins, is expected to be introduced Wednesday. The legislation would effectively let publishers team up to negotiate together with platform giants Facebook and Google, the Wall Street Journal reports.
  • Once, during the Obama administration, a website called WorldNetDaily was prominent as a center for spreading the false Obama “birther” conspiracy theory. At that time, the website offered a glimpse into a future with far more far-right websites. Today, however, WorldNetDaily is struggling. The website faces shrinking readership, falling revenue, and unpaid bills, according to a Washington Post investigation.

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Maya Kosoff is a freelance reporter based in New York City. She's written for Vanity Fair, The Washington Post, Allure, and Business Insider.