Candles, lit by activists, protesting the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, are placed outside Saudi Arabia's consulate, in Istanbul. Picture: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File

It has gradually become clear that one of the most heinous recent cases of torture of political prisoners occurred last year in Saudi Arabia - and may still be ongoing. The victims are women who were arrested for advocating basic civil rights, such as the right to drive. 

For months after their initial detentions, a number of the women were held in solitary confinement and subjected to beatings, electric shocks, waterboarding and sexual harassment. Senior Saudi officials are alleged to have been directly involved in the abuse. As in the case of the slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it is essential that they face consequences.

Amnesty International has identified a dozen female activists and several men who were arrested beginning last May and are still being held. None has been officially charged with a crime or put on trial. Last month, Amnesty said it had testimonies that 10 had been tortured during their first three months of detention, when they were held in a secret prison. In addition to physical abuse, Amnesty said two activists were forced to kiss each other while interrogators watched. At least one of the women, Loujain al-Hathloul, was threatened with rape by Saud al-Qahtani, a top aide to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who watched her torture, according to family members.

Most of those arrested are, like Hathloul, well-known for their participation in peaceful protests, such as driving cars before that right was granted to women. Several, such as Hatoon al-Fassi and Aziza al-Yousef, are noted scholars who have taught at universities. Samar Badawi was awarded a prize by the State Department in 2012 after she sought an end to the guardianship system for women and the right to vote. Others, including Eman al-Nafjan and Nour Abdel Aziz, are journalists or bloggers.

This week, a new report by a panel of British parliamentarians underlined the seriousness of the offences against them. It concluded that the women had been subjected to "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment," including assault, sleep deprivation, threats to their lives and solitary confinement, and meeting "the threshold for the crime of torture under both Saudi and international law."

Crispin Blunt, a Conservative member of Parliament who is known as a defender of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, told reporters in London that "our conclusions are stark. The Saudi women activist detainees have been treated so badly as to sustain an international investigation for torture." He added: "The supervisory chain of command up to the highest levels of Saudi authority would be responsible for this."

The parliamentarians are requesting that the United Nations' special rapporteur on torture and its working group on arbitrary detention investigate the treatment of the women. But that shouldn't be the only action that is taken. Saudi officials who participated in the torture should be prosecuted - if not in Saudi Arabia itself, then by courts elsewhere under the international Convention Against Torture.

Qahtani, who is accused of joining in the torture of Hathloul, also played a key role in the killing of Khashoggi, according to Saudi investigators and U.S. officials. The question every democratic government, would-be investor and celebrity guest ought to address to the Saudi regime is this: Why are these women still in prison while their torturer roams the royal court?

The Washington Post