Stop championing New Jersey as progressive: State and local politics are still a catastrophe

The state of New Jersey sure is getting a lot of hype to it; I haven’t been able to look at news articles about the state without some praise from progressive media about the great things New Jersey is accomplishing, now that Christie got the boot and Murphy got the in. There’s the minimum wage hike (which won’t go into effect until 2024); bills are being pushed to legalize marijuana (which stalled because of the lack of votes, despite being voted on multiple times during the Christie era); condemnation of Kavanaugh and the sexual violence against women from men in power (despite the fact that the same thing has happened in the Murphy Administration). The country only sees the great things that the state is doing from the headlines; read between the lines and you will see the way local and state politics have been marred by a toxic combination of conservativism, neoliberalism, and progressive political theater. 

New Jersey is about progressive as Joe Biden. A heartening meme but with some creepy undertones that no one wants near them. New Jersey is about as progressive as Cory Booker, who at once talks about not accepting corporate PAC money but then has a fundraiser at $28,000 per donor that ensures each donor a picture with Booker and Murphy, and dinner, and is hosted by Bon Jovi. New Jersey is the high and mighty condemnation of offshore drilling on our oceans while it being ok for a pipeline to be built in the Meadowlands. If I have twenty dollars for every time a progressive news outlet lauded the great choices of the Garden State, I still wouldn’t be able to live there because the property taxes are too high and the Democrats in office would rather pull money from public employees before passing a Millionaire’s Taxon the super wealthy individuals in the state.

In my home county, a judge whose father was a senator is only threatened with suspension, despite asking a domestic violence survivor whether she kept her legs closed to prevent her partner from raping her and then denyied her restraining order because he thought she wasn’t telling the truth. Essex County still won’t end a contract with ICE, citing safety concerns for the people they detain, while still making seven million dollars a month from holding them for ICE. 

Cops keeping beating people, and we know cops are pigs (and really actively acknowledge that—“Lakehurst cops are shit; cops gotta fill a quota at the end of the month; no, no, no, Manchester cops are worse”), but the moment a black boy or girl is shot, all I hear is Blue Lives Matter from the same people that call those in Blue assholes.

I have never been more sick and tired of hearing about the great Phil Murphy, even though I was optimistic that the administration won (because at least it wasn’t Kim Guadagno and her Christie taint). But now somehow the progressive policies that were championed in that era are suddenly too…too extreme or revolutionary now that Democrats are crawling towards a super majority in the state legislature. 

We should have had a living wage almost immediately, because small businesses aren’t a thing anymore in the state and Barnabas Health and Wakefern (all the Shoprite supermarket chains in the state and their warehouses and commissaries) are the state’s largest employers. If we really care about the environment in the state of New Jersey, all pipelines should be banned from being built and subsidized solar panels should be available to all residents so we can finally faze out electric companies. We should have not just lip service about affordable housing and lament on the cost of living in the state, but also clear-cut housing first and affordable housing options. And raise taxes on the wealthy in the state! I am sick and tired of passing by Deal on Route 71 and seeing mansions and knowing that those aren’t even primary houses but just summer homes!

We should be legalizing marijuana, no if, ands or buts and then expunge those who have been arrested and charged with marijuana charges, demand reparations for them, and help them create a business for those people instead of watching large corporations bank on the legalization of marijuana. 

I’m running for Governor in the Great State of New Jersey, because anyone knows the suffering of the people is inherently tied to the economic redistribution of wealth between the two classes of residents (a gap which is widening), it’s a Jersey girl who’s had to deal with the threat of foreclosure, late phone bills and electricity being turned off; it’s Sandy and then the giant snowstorm afterward that almost knocked a tree into her family’s run down house. It’s a girl who’d rather make sure that the employees in retail can live in the state (because she herself wouldn’t have been able to live in the state) instead of those poor millionaires who might have to leave their first and second homes if we raise their taxes. And when progressive news outlets put me on a title of their great next piece, it will be because of actual progressive policies that don’t have the stink of neoliberalism about it. 

(Photo Credit 1: PBS / Reuters / Eduardo Munoz) (Photo Credit 2: LSE US Centre)

It’s time to talk about mental illness and police brutality

Andrew Casciano

It was only supposed to be a simple call. Police in Paterson, NJ, were assisting in a phone call for a suicide attempt, and had met the victim at the St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Paterson, a little over a year ago. Later, as video emerged from the two police officers’ own recorded video, the victim was beaten and slapped by those officers—Ruben McAusland and Roger Then. The first footage shows the victim—Andrew Casciano—being slapped by McAusland in the waiting room of the emergency room as he is wheeled in.

The second footage, shot by Then with a shiteating grin on his face before the assault took place, shows McAusland reacting violently to a suicidal patient’s comments, slapping the man hard enough—twice—for blood to splatter on the bedsheets.

I have members of my family that work in behavioral health units. Under no circumstances are they to even consider touching a mentally ill patient unless they pose a direct and violent threat to the nursing staff or to themselves. There is extensive training to spot those risks. Casciano was laying in a hospital bed. His only weapon? A box of latex gloves that he threw at an officer. McAusland abused his authority and punched a man who, for all intents and purposes, was attempting to goad the police into killing him.

But the violence that McAusland and Then inflicted on Casciano is only part of the charges that have been leveled against them and four other Paterson police officers, including assault, dealing drugs and an attempted coverup. McAusland pleaded guilty to “possession and distribution of heroin, cocaine and marijuana—all of which he said he stole from a crime scene while he was on duty—and to depriving Casciano of his civil rights by assaulting him in prison.” McAusland was sentenced to 5 ½ years in prison. Then, who blamed the assault on McAusland, was sentenced to six months after pleading guilty to concealing the civil rights violation.  

The videos go a long way in illustrating the ways police officers abuse and violate the trust of the community in Paterson. They are also indicative of the ways in which the police and the entire criminal justice system are inherently abusive. 

Mentally ill individuals have not often been highlighted in police brutality; they are always considered an afterthought. Is it because we don’t legitimately view mental illnesses as real illnesses that could have devastating effects on people’s interactions with police? People with untreated mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter that other civilians approached or stopped by law enforcement.

According to a report by the Treatment Advocacy Center, though individuals with untreated mental illnesses number only 1 in 50 US adults, they are involved with at least 1 in 4, and as many as half of all fatal police shootings. According to the co-author of the study, executive director John Snook, “By dismantling the mental illness treatment system, we have turned mental health crisis from a medical issue into a police matter. This is patently unfair, illogical and is proving harmful both to the individual in desperate need of care and the officer who is forced to respond.” 

I have had two very uncomfortable encounters with the police, both when I’ve been in the midst of panic attacks. The two officers ranged from casual indifference to outright belligerent rudeness. I did not feel safe in the company of those individuals. You can blame the lack of training the police officers have with mentally ill individuals; but it also highlights how policing is consistently and diametrically opposed to any kind of public safety or community safety, and that needs to end. 

(Photo Credit: Paterson Times)

March 25: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, working women’s safety, and why we don’t prosecute the rich

March 25th was the 108th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City, an event that killed 129 immigrant women (in total, 146 died) and has been remembered as one of the worst tragedies in American history. As immigrant men and women funneled into Ellis Island and settled in New York City, many men and women found jobs in factories, and industrial work. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory took up the top three floors in Greenwich Village. It was described as a sweatshop—employing Jewish and Immigrant women—creating button-down blouses in close-quarters for 12 hours each day, for a meager $15 a week. 

The safety of the women workers was never considered; it was never regarded as a concern. The women worked in close corners, with a corroded fire hose, no sprinkler system, an unreliable elevator (able to hold only 12 people and broken every four trips). The two staircases leading to the street had a locked door to access them, and the fire escape was too narrow for the 600 workers to file out quickly. 

On March 25, 2011, a fire broke out. With doors and fire exits locked and the sole fire escape broken as workers fled, firefighters were unable to enter the building and their ladders did not reach top floor. The age of the murdered women ranged from 16 to 23 years old. 

With outrage mounting and protests from workers, unions, and progressives, New York state investigated factory conditions and implemented workplace safety rules. And yet there was no justice for the deaths of the women. At best, the factory owners were negligent with the conditions of the women; at worst, corporate greed prevailed, and the owners should have faced manslaughter charges. Neither happened.  

The victims’ (mostly women, remember) lives amounted to nothing more than $75 per person, paid to families that sued the company. Justice was not for those workers and their families; justice is only for the extremely wealthy who didn’t give a care for the safety of the women creating excess in wealth for themselves. 

To this day, safety conditions for women workers remain a major issue in the United States and around the globe. Sweatshops in third world countries are still thriving, with women exploited everyday to create cheap merchandise to sell to Imperial countries. Incarcerated people are forced to work with poor conditions for less than what factory workers were getting a week. Large corporations are not held accountable for their poor conditions unless they are publicly shamed for their exploitation and abuse of workers. Even then, they’d rather launch a PR campaign than implement safer labor conditions. For the rich, working-class and poor women’s lives mean nothing; it’s cheaper to pay a token after the tragedy.

After the fire

(Image Credit: 5 Minute History) (Photo Credit: Smithsonian Magazine)

The wealthy bribe their way in the world; the poor just go to jail

Tanya McDowell addresses reporters

The newest college admissions scandals bring into focus the distorted and privileged ways the rich bribe their way to make sure their children get into prestigious colleges and Ivy League schools. Some of the more ridiculous attempts included a teenage girl who did not play soccer becoming a star soccer recruit at Yale for $1.2 million; a high school who was falsely deemed to have a learning disability so that he could have a proctor at a standardized test to get the right score to attend the University of South California for $50,000; a student whose parents paid $200,000 so that she could win a spot on the U.S.C. crew team, without any experience in rowing, by having another person in a boat submitted as evidence of a nonexistent skill. 

The outrageous attempts go on and on, in a scandal that led federal prosecutors to charged 50 people to buy spots in the freshman classes at Yale, Stanford and other major-leagued schools. Those wealthy parents included Hollywood celebrities and prominent business leaders, with more indictments to come. Top college athletic coaches were also implicated for accepting millions of dollars to help admit those undeserving students to those high-profile schools. And while the theoretical punishment carries a penalty of 20 years, it is highly unlikely that these wealthy people will face any serious prison time. They’ll get lighter sentences or alternative punishments: “The judge could actually impose a sentence of probation in cases like this. He could impose community service, public work service, or home confinement. There’s a wide range of options available to the judge.” 

Meanwhile, we continually imprison Black and Brown parents for longer periods of time for lesser offenses, including nonviolent drug offenses, minor misdemeanors, or something as simple as not being able to post bail, despite having committed no crime (16-year-old Kalief Browder was held at Rikers Island for three years because, accused of stealing a backpack, he couldn’t afford the $3,000 bail to get out).

Where is the sympathy and compassion for these individuals? Where is the leniency for those who have not committed a violent offense? If you’re not rich, there is no sympathy, compassion or leniency. None.

Consider Tanya McDowell, a homeless Bridgeport, CT mom who was arrested and charged with first-degree larceny for enrolling her son Andrew in a better school in neighboring Norfolk. McDowell eventually took a plea deal and was sentenced to five years in prison for sending her child to a better school district. To give her child a better education. In a hyper segregated country where there is nearly $23 billion more in state and local funding for white schools than predominantly nonwhite districts.  

It’s time for us to acknowledge that both prison and education have been set up so that only the wealthy and white get the best services. Wealthier members of society can “donate” their way into having children attend, even if they don’t deserve it; the wealthy can leave prison and serve house arrests in large mansions or pay lawyers to never “suffer” any kind of punishment whatsoever. To be poor means to be imprisoned for wanting your child to succeed and never being able to pay your way back out. 

(Photo Credit: Kathleen O’Rourke / Stamford Advocate) (Image Credit: A Different Drummer)

No one is free until we are all free!

Children are dying at detention centers on the border. ICE detention centers, which line the pockets of counties like Essex, New Jersey, with millions of dollars each month, have been reported with disgusting health and safety code violations, violating the cushy contracts. Undocumented immigrants in detention at the border have finally won their right to continue protesting with hunger strikes without the fear of nasal tube force feedings. In New Jersey, a Guatemalan toddler died in a state hospital, after being detained by ICE.  Her 104-degree fever was ignored before she was reunited with her family in the Garden State. a record number of babies are in detention, raising concerns about the children’s health and wellbeing; and the list goes on and on. 

We have reached a crisis moment in the United States when we can ignore the violence and the othering of people, denying them their humanity and justifying carceral violence as a penalty of illegality. Babies and children should not be in detention. Women fleeing violence should not be incarcerated; people should not be put behind bars.  

The bubbling incarceration rates of all people in this country, the ties to private prisons that give stockholders millions or billions for putting people behind bars for nonviolent crimes, drug crimes, crimes of self-defense, tickets, misdemeanors, children incarceration: all of this should not be. The crime of being poor and being black or being brown should not be. The lists of should-not-be are endless.

We have more in common with undocumented immigrants in our community, working hard to raise and provide for their families each day, than we do with the billionaires sitting in the oval office and the capitol buildings. We have more in common with the incarcerated than we do with Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Betsy Devos. We have more in common with the impoverished and homeless than we do with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The threat of homelessness looms over many in this country, including those who claim to be members of the middle class. I have known the certified letters from mortgage companies, threatening foreclosure and homelessness. Many can relate to earning the bare minimum and working until our bodies have deteriorated. For someone whose entire political career involves an obscene amount of “executive time”, he does not understand the calloused fingers and sore feet of working twelve, fifteen hour shifts and then waking up the next morning to do it again. 

We will not become a nation for the people, until we understand that we are all together, all people, all humans, deserving of dignity and humanity, and that we deserve not bars but homes and healthcare, rehabilitation and not violence and felony charges. Prisons give those in power the ability to de-humanize and then justify no one deserving basic human rights: why should the criminal get healthcare when you work for it; why is Narcan for the drug addict free but my medication prices will kill me?

When you realize that the politicians won’t save you, but your common man and women will, then one must organize to demand an end to the inequality and inhumanity in this country and the world. To begin, we must destroy the prison industrial complex.

(Photo Credit: Dialectical Delinquents)

A New Jersey probation officer is arrested for assaulting a child in his charge: Why are local news making her seem older?

A state probation officer from Wall, New Jersey has been charged with sexual assault of a probationer under his supervision. The officer, Henry C. Cirignano is facing two counts of second-degree sexual assault, one for, “allegedly coercing the victim and the other related to his position of power over the victim as her probation officer.” Cirignano has been suspended with his access to court facilities revoked.

Though early in the investigation, that Cirignanohas not been terminated from his high-paying position ($88,266 per year) is telling for how the state of New Jersey is willing to compromise to protect the accused child molester. Consistently the survivor is called a “woman” even though, according to the official misconduct charges from Monmouth County, Cirignano’s conviction would subject him to provisions of Megan’s Law:

“If convicted of Official Misconduct, Cirignano faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years in a New Jersey state prison without parole and a lifetime ban on public employment in the State of New Jersey.

“If convicted of Sexual Assault, Cirignano faces up to 10 years in a New Jersey State prison on each county, subject to the provisions of the ‘No Early Release Act’ (NERA) requiring him to serve 85 percent of the sentence imposed before becoming eligible for release on parole. He would also be subject to the provisions of ‘Megan’s Law’ and Parole Supervision for Life requiring a minimum of 15 years of parole supervision following his release from prison.”

The Megan’s Lawsex offender registration was signed into law in 1994 in New Jersey, after 7-year-old Megan Kanka went missing from her home in Hamilton Township, having been kidnapped, raped and murdered by sex offender Jesse Timmendequas. Her body had been located nearby less than 24 hours later. Megan’s Law requires communities to be notified when sex offenders move into their neighborhoods. 

That bit of information in the press proves two problems with how New Jersey incarcerates and monitors youth; and then how those youths are portrayed when people in positions of power use said power to abuse them. 

In New Jersey, despite the decline of in care facilities, 274 youths are currently committed to those facilities. Most youths are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses; the second reason youth are in juvenile justice is parole violations. 

According to the Urban Institute, New Jersey disproportionately incarcerates Black youths over White youths; despite being only 14 percent of the youth population, Black youths make up 73 percent of those committed to secure juvenile facilities. Even more nefarious, after release, those youths are supervised constantly by the state either through probation or aftercare treatments. The Garden State is a high spender on making sure youths are incarcerated and under control.

Second, when probations officers are accused of abusing their positions of power, news and press outlets, including press releases from the county itself, look to hide the extent of the abuse. Cirignano’s abuse would have been terrible because he sexually assaulted someone he could send back to prison if they had fought back. The person he was monitoring and abusing was a child, who could have easily been sent back to juvenile corrections. Given the population and problem of youth in incarceration, media outlets and the state have decided that children in New Jersey, children who might be in need of mental health services or actually care and consideration, are not allowed to be children.  

(Infographic Credit: Urban Institute)

ICE created a fake university, charged students, and then arrested them … For what?

ICE detained 146 students and 8 recruiters in a sting, where it “created” an accredited university, the University of Farmington, to lure international students into attending classes. Federal prosecutors allege that more than 600 students enrolled in the University of Farmington knew that the university was fake. 

The sting was part of a “pay to stay scheme” where, “foreign students could remain in the U.S. while working.” The scheme would have allowed students to stay in the United States as a result of foreign citizens falsely asserting that they were enrolled as full-time students in an approved educational program and were making normal progress toward completion of the course of study. But for many of the students, the university was very real. Students paid tuition to the university, hoping to receive an education, and, when they found out there would be no classes to attend, they unsuccessfully attempted to transfer. 

The University of Farmington portrayed itself as a “nationally accredited business and STEM institution to prospective students.” While nefarious, the ICE scheme is not illegal, nor is it a new low for ICE. In 2016, the DHS created the University of Northern New Jersey to charge 21 people with student and work visa fraud. Many of the students detained are from the Telugu-speaking region of India. India’s government is urging the U.S. to release the 129 students who have been arrested on immigration charges, while the 8 recruiters have been detained on criminal charges. 

According to defense attorneys, the students enrolled in the university with the intent to obtain jobs under a visa program known as CPT (Curricular Practical Training) that allows students to work in the U.S. Those programs are legitimate; the U.S. tricked students into joining the University of Farmington. The website and media was so developed for the University that there was a LinkedIn page for the “President” of Farmington, Ali Milani, and a Facebook page with a series of events hosted on the calendars. The website also claimed the university had been authorized to enroll international students by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 

Attorney Prashanthi Reddy said that the students were told that they were following immigration laws: “The students paid them for tuition fees and were trapped once they realized that classes were not being held, as some didn’t have the money to transfer and pay tuition at another university. Some did transfer out, some said they called and emailed the university and asked for SEVIS to be transferred but did not get a response, some other said they were reassured by the fact that the University was accredited and listen on the ICE website.”

While this is not considered a sting operation, but baiting, students were assured that they were doing the best they could to obtain higher education in the United States and doing so legally. How well the website had been developed and the fact that students paid for such education is even more sinister. To assume the intention of the international students had been to abuse a system wherein they would be able to work is just that, an assumption. Students saw a university that promoted the teaching of business and STEM, and they wanted to continue their education. ICE used that to prey on them. For what?

(Photo Credit: ThisIsInsider)

When your prison location dictates the services you do and don’t receive

In North Dakota, in 2003, a women’s prison was moved from Bismarck to the farming town of New England. In 2019, the governor is considering moving the women back to Bismarck, predominantly because of claims that it is focusing on the economic impact to the struggling town. For women, the impact would be obvious since they are not receiving the same treatments and rehabilitation as the men currently incarcerated in Bismarck.

The move would have a large impact on the treatments women could receive, especially in comparison to men. For example, incarcerated men receive a wider variety of rehabilitation services unavailable to women incarcerated in New England. These include medical and rehabilitative services; access to medication assisted treatment to help overcome addictions; community access to medical or dental services; care coordination and peer support.

Governor Burgum has contended that the need is obvious, and that the state has the responsibility to treat men and women inmates equally. Responding to problems of wide disparity between inmates’ care, Burgum has instituted a series of reforms addressing corrections and behavioral health services, all of which are meant to improve the women’s prison, a key to the Governor’s desire to transform North Dakota government. 

On the other hand, the incarcerated women have been at the center of a controversy, in which New England residents have protested moving the inmates because of the economic toil it would have on the town. State lawmakers have yet to approve the move. Those opposed to the move are mobilizing; former inmates have spoken out in favor of the move. Townsfolk are not pitted against women inmates clamoring for better services that will take care of them and help prevent their re-entry into the criminal justice system.

Meanwhile, the care they have received out in New England has been inadequate, at best. A pregnant woman receiving methadone treatment for an opioid addiction was about to be moved to the women’s prison, when her doctor intervened to keep her in the county jail, where medication-assisted addiction treatment is available. Without the treatment, methadone withdrawal could have put the fetus in peril and caused a miscarriage. 

90 percent of the women in the Dakota Women’s Correctional Center, in New England, come from communities in central and eastern North Dakota. They come from towns hundreds of miles from New England, and there is no bus service to New England. Three in four of the women have children under the age of 18; more than half of the inmates reoffend as well, continuing a cycle of recidivism for them and harm for their children. 

The Dakota Women’s Correctional Center provides New England with a grand total of 56 jobs, while, according to the Governor, the surrounding southwestern North Dakota has between 800 and 1,000 job offerings. “If it’s about jobs in southwestern North Dakota, we’ve got a lot of unfilled jobs,” Burgum has noted. Governor Burgum insists that the move is about better rehabilitation, giving women the chance to lead better and more productive lives through rehabilitation: “That’s what the focus has to be. It’s not about how we make better prison jobs.” 

(Photo Credit: Chris Flynn / The Forum)

Ending solitary confinement, the problem that doesn’t “exist” in New Jersey

Nafeesah Goldsmith

Nafeesah Goldsmith is a community organizer with the nonprofit organization Jersey City Together. She graduated Rutgers University with a bachelor’s degree and is working towards a Master’s in Criminal Justice at Monmouth University. She has been working to curtail the practice of solitary confinement in New Jersey, as she has had first hand experience of its abuse. For nearly 13 years, Nafeesah Goldsmith was incarcerated for at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility and was forced to spend nearly 60 days in solitary confinement—in the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, a male inmate facility since Edna Mahan did not have its own isolation ward (now, it does).

There Goldsmith spent two months of isolation, “with the exception of 45 minutes of recreation time, most days, in the prison yard. She said she sometimes went without showering, depending on the mood of the guards. To pass the time she spoke with isolated prisoners through the vents and the toilet, sometimes playing a makeshift version of hangman.” 

For inmates in segregation, the most traumatizing aspect is the dehumanizing treatment they face while in solitary confinement. Goldsmith is still reminded of the anguished cries from the other solitary cells: “You hear nothing but screams and it’s loud and there’s banging. You have people having mental episodes and people having medical emergencies. You have people with seizures and you have people attempting suicide.” That is only some of the horror that people suffer in solitary, or as New Jersey calls it, administrative segregation.

Seizing on the nomenclature of the term for solitary confinement, in 2016 former Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill to restrict the practice to 15 or 20 consecutive days over a two-month period. The bill would have also sought to exempt mentally ill or pregnant inmates and require daily medical evaluations for those in isolation. His excuse? The piece of legislation, “seeks to resolve a problem that does not exist in New Jersey.”

But the problem very much does exist in the Garden State. Of the roughly 80,000 inmates in the United States currently in isolation, New Jersey holds 1,500. New Jersey ranks fourth in the country in the amount of time it places people in isolation. As far back as 2011 the United Nations claimed such punishment amounts to torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

Today, however, there is a turn of opinion in the Garden State, and another bill is back on the table. A-314/S-3261 would have similar exemptions as the bill Christie vetoed, and expand it to include people over 21 and young and 65 and older, and people with developmental disabilities and serious mental conditions. Survivors are telling their stories and forcing others who would not have interacted with the criminal justice system to examine the uses and abuses of solitary confinement. It is forcing the citizens of New Jersey to recognize that we are not treating other people with respect and dignity the moment that they are labeled “prisoner.” 

Nafeesah Goldsmith’s bravery and willingness to come forward with her story, along with those of others, is helping to make significant and positive changes in New Jersey as regards our treatment of incarcerated human beings. She is willing to tell her story at schools, at coalition events, and to anyone who will listen. It’s time we started to listen. 

(Photo Credit: Asbury Park Press / Doug Ford)

In Saudi Arabia, reports of torture of women’s rights activists

Loujain Al-Hathloul

Women’s and human rights activists, who have been arrested and arbitrarily detained for their activism, are being abused in Saudi Arabia prisons. Amnesty International obtained new reports of torture and escalating abuse of human rights activists who had been detained since May 2018. Their testimony matched earlier Amnesty reports concerning ten activist women prisoners who were tortured in November 2018. The new reports document that the incarcerated have been subjected to torture, including sexual abuse, during their first three months of detention, when they were detained informally in an unknown location. “One woman activist was wrongly told by an interrogator that her family members had died, and was made to believe this for an entire month. According to another account, two activists were forced to kiss each other while interrogators watched. One activist reported that interrogators had forced water into her mouth as she was shouting while being torture. Others reported being tortured with electric shocks.” 

Earlier reports state that while informally detained, activists were tortured with electric shocks and flogged repeatedly, which caused some to be unable to walk or even stand properly. More recent reports expand the number of activists who have experienced such torture while in prison. 

The activists – including Loujain al-Hathloul; Eman al-Nahjan; Aziza al-Yousef; Shadan al-Anezi; and Nouf Abdulaziz – were moved from the Dhahban Prison in Jeddag to Al-Ha’ir Prison in Riyadh. Other activists, including Samar Badawi and Amal al-Harbi, are still in Dhahban Prison. Nassima al-Sada was moved to al-Mabahith Prison in Damman. All activists have been detained for months without being formally charged or referred to trial. The crackdown on human rights activists saw a wave of arrests and raids of political and activist organizations, including the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, human rights lawyers and academics. 

Saudi Arabia has dismissed Amnesty’s claims, calling them baseless while also defending their use of their own independent investigation into the allegations. Saudi backed investigators visited the women in prison and interviewed the detainees. Given Saudi Arabia’s involvement  in the killing of journalist and regime-critic Jamal Khashoggi and the high-profile case of 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammad, the latest cases of human rights abuses from the Saudi regime could damage their ability “to attract foreign investment” and so any State-sponsored investigations are highly suspect.

The women and activists detained are being used as political pawns for good international PR in Saudi Arabia. Insiders have hoped that the women will be released in time to coincide with a signification international event, like the 2020 G20 Summit set to be held in Riyadh. They hope the Saudi regime will attempt to wrap up any more “embarrassing things” on the international stage before the meeting is set to take place. Activists like Bessma Momani, a professor at the University of Waterloo, and groups of other academics, are working to nominate al-Hatloul for the Nobel Peace Prize, with the hope that the importance of the nomination highlights “a young person who wants nothing more than to see half of her country have the same legal rights as the other half.” 

(Photo Credit: CBC)