NEW YORK • Saudi Arabia's public prosecutor is investigating allegations that several prominent women's rights activists have been tortured in jail, according to three people familiar with the matter.
The torture, including electric shocks and floggings, allegedly occurred last year at a secret detention facility in an unknown location, according to four people. The prosecutor's office entered the picture after the government's Human Rights Commission conducted its own investigation, first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
Prosecutors visited the activists in prison to take their testimony about physical and verbal abuse, as well as sexual harassment they say they have endured since they were detained last May, people said.
The Saudi government's Centre for International Communication did not respond to a request for comment.
In November, the media ministry had called the allegations, reported at the time by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, "baseless" and "simply wrong".
While Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is opening Saudi Arabia to foreign investment and has loosened social restrictions to grant women more rights, he has also cracked down on dissent, imprisoning dozens of critics across the political spectrum.
The campaign turned deadly in October with the murder of government critic Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Mr Khashoggi's killing created an international uproar, though the government has vehemently denied that the Prince played a role.
The feminist activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan, had fought for years for Saudi women's rights, including the right to drive. They were arrested in May, along with several male supporters shortly before the government lifted its longstanding ban on women driving.
The authorities accused them of collaborating with unspecified foreign entities hostile to the kingdom and local newspapers called them traitors.
In an opinion piece in The New York Times yesterday, Ms Alia al-Hathloul confirmed that a prosecutor had visited her sister in jail to take testimony.
Loujain al-Hathloul had told her parents "she had been held in solitary confinement, beaten, waterboarded, given electric shocks, sexually harassed and threatened with rape and murder", her sister wrote.
In an interview with Bloomberg in October, Prince Mohammed said the Saudi authorities had videos and recordings that showed that the activists were working with foreign intelligence agencies and "being paid money to leak". He invited reporters to visit the prosecutor's office to review the evidence against them but the authorities have not granted multiple requests for access.
Last month, one of the male detainees - an 80-year-old lawyer who had once represented Hathloul - was freed, giving hope to some Saudi activists that the government could release others.