Coronavirus threat to journalists in overcrowded Saudi prisons
Noting that Saudi Arabia says it has released 250 foreign detainees in order to help contain the coronavirus epidemic, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Saudi authorities to immediately release arbitrarily detained journalists, who are in great danger of catching Covid-19 in the kingdom’s overcrowded prisons.
The authorities announced the release of 250 foreign detainees held for immigration and residency offences on 26 March, but they continue to detain prisoners of conscience, including around 30 journalists and bloggers.
These detainees are exceptionally vulnerable in Saudi Arabia’s over-populated prisons, where social distancing is impossible. Several of them are already in poor health as a result of being mistreated and tortured, and need urgent medical attention.
They include Fahd Al-Sunaidi and Adel Banaemah, two TV hosts who have been held since 2017. According to the London-based Guardian newspaper, their names appeared in leaked medical reports prepared for King Salman that describe the physical effects of the mistreatment and torture inflicted on political prisoners.
“The Saudi authorities cannot be unaware of the already appalling prison conditions that render detainees even more vulnerable during this pandemic,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Leaving these journalists in prison would compound an already terrible injustice by an act of serious endangerment.”
Several of the imprisoned journalists and bloggers held in isolation have become very ill and need medical attention. According to the information obtained by RSF, Raif Badawi, a blogger who has been held for more than seven years for “insulting Islam,” has not been able to contact his family since late February. His wife learned that he was transferred to a hospital on 11 March but she has received no information about his condition since then.
Several trials due to be held during the coming weeks have been postponed yet again because, in order to contain the epidemic, the Saudi authorities have shut down various public services including the courts. As a result, hearings in the cases of Nassima Al-Sada and Nouf Abdulaziz, two women bloggers held since June 2018, have been cancelled.
Saudi Arabia is ranked 172nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.