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Changes with pain? Saudi Arabia torturing critics despite social reforms

By International Desk , Garowe Online

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - Despite fundamental social reforms enacted by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, several loopholes have emerged, almost rendering the changes paradoxical.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has transformed the oil-rich Middle East nation considerably, targeting women and the youth in the last couple of years.

But a report released by Human Rights Watch group on Monday, projects the regime as 'autocratic', a move that could yet again question the integrity of Salman.

Arbitrary arrests targeting the regime's critics, rights activists and other political dissidents has been on the rapid increase, something which could negatively impact on various reforms being undertaken by the government.

The 62-page report, “The High Cost of Change’: Repression Under Saudi Crown Prince Tarnishes Reforms" also questions the integrity and accountability of the government, now eclipsed with human rights abuses.

Saudi Arabia adheres to the austere Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam, which bans gender mixing, concerts, and cinemas, the plan’s seemingly anodyne goals to empower women, promote sports and invest in entertainment have been criticized before.

“Mohammed bin Salman has created an entertainment sector and allowed women to travel and drive, but Saudi authorities have also locked away many of the country’s leading reformist thinkers and activists on his watch, some of whom called for these very changes,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

“A truly reforming Saudi Arabia would not subject its leading activists to harassment, detention, and mistreatment," adds the report, which could cause controversy.

The report is based on interviews with Saudi activists and dissidents since 2017, government statements, and court documents, as well as exhaustive reviews of Saudi local media outlets and social media.

In June 2017, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman appointed his son, Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince, making him next in line to the Saudi throne and the country’s day-to-day ruler.

His elevation coincided with positive changes, fostering a positive image for the crown prince on the international political scene.

Protestors are banned from holding vigil, with authorities also summoning those believed to be with the king's opponents. The report cites cases of people being subjected to torture chambers as an orthodox why of silencing them.

Among formidable reforms enacted by the government recently include allowing women to serve in the country's military, something which was a preserve for men in the patriarchal society.

"Another step to empowerment," the foreign ministry wrote on Twitter, adding that women would be able to serve as private first class, corporal or sergeant.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, the kingdom's de facto ruler, has further allowed women to drive and to travel abroad without consent from a male "guardian".

"Guardians can still file a police complaint that their female relatives are 'absent', which would lead to their arrest and possible detention in Dar al-Reaya [women's shelter]," Eman Alhussein, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told AFP news agency recently.

Despite the radical social changes, Salman will now have to deal with authoritarianism in his own government, to further appease the liberal international community.

The country was recently dragged to the gruesome murder of a leading journalist, a case that threatened the Middle East nation's relationship with the international community following protests by Human Rights groups.


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