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Sep. 10 2009 - 5:57 am | 133 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

What it’s like inside a Saudi Arabian prison

Location of Mecca

Image via Wikipedia

In case you didn’t know, staying on a Saudi jail sucks.

Writing over at The Guardian, Syed Neaz Ahmad recounted his time in the Saudi prison system. Ahmad, a British citizen, was a lecturer at Mecca’s Umm al-Qura University for 28 years. He was taken into custody by Saudi authorities after leaving his job at Umm al-Qura to work at the religious NGO the Muslim World League. Ahmad did not note his reason for leaving Umm al-Quara or why Saudi authorities confiscated ihs passport and residence permit in his stories in The Guardian. However, arbitrary detainments and arrests are not uncommon in the Saudi kingdom.

In Saudi Arabia, non-citizens detained on immigration violations are kept in jails/prisons alongside the general population. So what lessons can be taken from Ahmad’s time in the Saudi system?

1. They’re uncomfortable and dangerous:

They took away my briefcase and my mobile phone and pushed me into a room that was already full with around 500 inmates. The air conditioning and the fans did not work. There was no drinking water. The toilets were dirty and three of the five toilets were without water and electricity. One can only imagine the stink. In June temperatures in Mecca run up to 50C.

Inmates in this Saudi Gitmo were moved from one room to another every two hours or so. As there was not enough room to sit or stretch your legs it added to the stress and strain. We were made to sleep on bare floors and fights for sitting/sleeping space were not uncommon. There was a stabbing over a small sum of money – I don’t know if the victim survived.

2. The guards can be sadists:

The guards in Mecca were very “kind” to me. They never missed an opportunity to call me “animal”, kick my ankles with their boots or step on my toes.

3. Children are placed in general population:

My first shock was the sight of a nine-year-old Nigerian boy sitting on his own crying aloud. He wanted to go to his mama. He had been separated from his family in a souk. For the police, he was an illegal immigrant and booked for deportation. Does the Saudi sharia law require a nine-year-old to be imprisoned with adults? This was not a funfair. Apparently Saudi law is blind when it comes to such subtleties.

4. Smugglers are everywhere:

My mobile phone and most of the cash in my pocket had been confiscated but inside I saw inmates communicating with the outside world. I was told phones were smuggled in with the connivance of the guards, cigarettes and what appeared to be addictive tablets of some sort were sold for cash. The business was brisk and cash turnover seemed high.

5. People are there for petty reasons:

A young man from Islamabad, a welder, had been offered a job in Medina but on his arrival was told that the factory had been relocated – some 50km down Tabuk highway. It was the middle of nowhere, the factory was an illegal set-up and this welder was the only worker. The little water and food that was delivered fortnightly he had share with the camels and goats. He tried to talk things over with his employer but it didn’t work out. One moonlit night the welder decided to call it a day, walked through the rugged terrain, reached the highway, hitched a ride and surrendered to the police. For a small fee of 500 riyals the police agreed to deport him. Six months have gone past but the welder is still waiting for a passage to Pakistan.

6. There are nationalities we did not even know existed inside Saudi prisons:

In Jeddah prison I met hundreds of inmates from Burma (Myanmar). Thousands of Burmese Muslims from Arakan – often called Rohingyas – were offered permanent residence in Saudi Arabia by King Faisal but with the change of rulers in Riyadh the rules underwent a change too. The haven of peace that was offered to these refugess is now nothing less than a chamber of horrors.

7. Among the torture and inhuman conditions, people still follow soccer:

Sudanese, Nigerians, Erirteans, Ethiopians and Somalis usually go to Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage but with turmoil back home they overstay, do odd jobs, get caught and get deported. African inmates are usually the ones most aware of what’s happening around the world. I spotted a number of “Man United for the Cup” graffiti.

Sad. Here is the United States States Department’s 2007 human rights report on Saudi Arabia. It is a conservative document owing to the United States’ extensive trade ties with the kingdom, yet it still notes “infliction of severe pain by judicially sanctioned corporal punishments,” “legal and societal discrimination and violence against women” and “arbitrary arrest and detention.” Charming place, Saudi Arabia.


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    About Me

    A New York-based journalist and blogger who has spent extensive time in the Middle East and is currently working on an MA thesis in Middle Eastern Studies. My thesis focuses on the 2009 Iranian election demonstrations and their coverage in the international media.

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    Contributor Since: July 2009
    Location:New York NY