Videos showing prisoners taking drugs embarrass Saudi authorities


Earlier this summer, Saudi authorities were left red-faced after a pair of videos showing prisoners appearing to inject themselves with drugs began spreading on social media networks. Officials were quick to respond, claiming that the inmates were actually injecting themselves with insulin. But our Observer's own investigation challenges the official version of events.

Both videos were leaked from Briman prison in Jeddah on June 13. In the first one, a man wearing green trousers and a t-shirt uses a syringe to inject a liquid into his thigh. A second inmate walks up to the camera and exclaims: "There are amphetamines, drugs, hashish, everything! Phones that cost 3,000 Riyals [about 700 euros] – everything!"

The second video shows a group of inmates sitting in a circle. With his head wrapped in a bandage, one of them turns to the prisoner filming with his phone and says: "You can film, I don't care!" He mixes a powder with another substance before pouring the mixture into several syringes that he hands out to his fellow inmates. One by one, the prisoners then plunge the syringes into their feet and forearms.

In response, Saudi Arabia's anti-drug police announced that they had launched an enquiry. Twenty-four hours later, they took to Twitter to declare that the videos actually showed inmates suffering from diabetes injecting themselves with insulin. Soon after, they condemned what they called a 'malicious attempt' to smear the reputation of the prison's director.

For two months, ALQST for Human Rights - a Saudi Arabian NGO - led its own enquiry into drug-taking in Saudi prisons. The NGO has just released a report in the form of a video that tears down the official version of events.

"Insulin isn't injected into the veins"

Yahia Assiri is a member of ALQST for Human Rights. He lives in exile in the United Kingdom.

We asked specialists and doctors, particularly from the Royal College of Medicine in England, to analyse the videos. They told us that the official story - that the inmates were injecting themselves with insulin - was unlikely.

In the videos, prisoners use a powder that they mix with a liquid. But insulin isn't a powder, it's just a liquid, and it isn't mixed with anything else. You can also see detainees injecting the liquid into veins in the feet and forearms. Insulin is injected under the skin, but never in the veins.

Furthermore, it's very unlikely that a patient suffering from diabetes would inject him or herself with insulin without measuring out an exact dose. It's even rarer to see diabetic people sharing syringes, given that they would risk spreading all kinds of viruses and other illnesses.

When the incident took place, the authorities rapidly denied what was fairly obvious in order to calm things down. Yet we've just found out that Jeddah's prisons director, Ahmad al-Chahrani, was dismissed from his post last week. Two prison officers were also transferred to work in other prisons after disciplinary measures were carried out.

We've been in touch with prisoners of conscience [Editor's note: people imprisoned for holding political or religious beliefs that aren't tolerated by the state in which they live] in various prisons across Saudi Arabia, and they all told us that all kinds of drugs are sold inside the prison walls, particularly in Jeddah's Briman prison and Riyadh's Malaz prison.

"Saudi authorities must be more transparent"

Prison wardens also confirmed to us that some of their colleagues were implicated in the drug trafficking. These testimonies were corroborated by a human rights activist whose identity I prefer to keep secret for his own safety. He's currently behind bars serving a prison sentence. He recently told me that one day he went to see the prison director to let him know that huge quantities of drugs were circulating inside the prison. When he went back to his prison cell, his fellow inmates tried to attack him. He hid from them for several hours in the toilets. Later, a prison warden told him that one of his fellow inmates had ratted him out to the other inmates. This political prisoner was then transferred to another prison because his life was in danger.

It's clear that Saudi Arabia's prison authorities have been unable to cope with the phenomenon. But instead of getting to grips with the problem, they choose instead to deny that one even exists.

Saudi authorities must be more transparent. They must give human rights organisations access to prisons so that they can take part in investigations.

During the last few months, several videos that lay bare the dangerous and overcrowded conditions of Saudi prisons have been leaked onto the internet. At the end of 2013, a video showing a detainee being humiliated by fellow inmates at Briman prison sparked a wave of outrage on social media networks.