A series of videos posted on Twitter on August 30 shocked the Saudi public by showing men dressed in uniforms and plainclothes pushing and beating young women with sticks, belts and taser guns. The images, which were filmed in a home for young orphaned girls, led to an internal police investigation that is still ongoing. But beyond police violence, the case reveals the girls' ongoing struggle, as they are considered wards of the Saudi state.
The violent scene was filmed by a young woman living at the home for young orphan girls in Khamis Mushait, a town in southern Saudi Arabia. She posted the video from an anonymous Twitter account, preferring to protect her identity, and explained that her action "comes after many unspoken assaults" that the girls at the home had suffered before.
Since they were posted on the evening of August 30, the two videos have accumulated more than 3 million views on Twitter and triggered a huge wave of outrage, anger and support for the victims under the hashtag "The Orphans of Khamis Mushait", in Arabic #ايتام_خميس_مشيط.
On that day, the residents of the home ransacked the office of the director to demand better living conditions and denounced several regular violations of their rights as wards of the kingdom. Later in the evening, a dozen police officers, firemen and men in civilian clothes burst into the institution and beat up several young women from the home.
The images are difficult to watch. For a few minutes, several men in uniform and plain clothes burst into the courtyard of the home, chasing young women wearing black abayas or niqabs.
At 1'50'' in the first clip, six men in civilian clothes, their faces covered by their keffiyehs, grab a young girl they suspect of having filmed the assault on her phone, tackle her to the ground and handcuff her feet as she struggles. While one of them holds the handcuffed victim by the hair, another then orders the rest of the women not to film, at the risk of suffering the same fate as their comrade.
The second video, posted by the same user a few minutes later, picks up immediately after the first one: a policeman draws his belt to hit a woman who has come to rescue another young girl who was beaten and tackled to the ground by two men in civilian clothes, handcuffing her feet. The girl, her head now uncovered, begs her tormentors to let her go, promising not to film with her phone again. During the rest of the clip, several other residents are beaten and thrown violently to the ground.
The same user said that the attackers did not spare the home's employees who tried to help the young women. This was confirmed by the footage of the incident.
Despite numerous attempts, the Observers were unable to establish direct contact with any of the home's residents. However, a Twitter user, under the pseudonym of Amal, who identifies herself as one of the girls from the shelter, recounted the sequence of events leading up to the raid. Here is her testimony, published in a Twitter thread.
'We are all terrorised by what we witnessed, many girls cried all night'
Some of the girls in the hostel demanded their rights, including the state subsidy they are supposed to get. In addition, several girls were prevented from pursuing higher education because the headmistress simply denies us this right. After an unsuccessful discussion with the headmistress, one of the girls, in frustration, tore up some administrative records.
Shortly afterwards, the headmistress called the police, and then three of the home's security guards showed up with handcuffs and burst into the room of the girl who caused the scene.
We tried to keep them out, there were clashes, we threw objects from the room at their heads, we resisted as best we could! A little later, four policemen intervened and beat up the girls who were obstructing the room. Those who were inside then barricaded themselves in.
'The headmistress, who is primarily responsible for what happened, is still in her position'
They then brought in firemen as backup, broke down the door and started beating the girls savagely with belts and sticks. I had bruises on my arms and neck. Other men dressed in civilian clothes even dragged girls by their hair into the courtyard of the hostel, they were crying the whole time but the police did not spare them. We are all terrorised by what we witnessed, many girls cried all night.
We have been living in fear since that day. We don't know what will happen to the girls who have been hospitalised. Although an investigation is under way into the circumstances of the attack, the headmistress, who is primarily responsible for what happened, is still in her position.
In response to the outpouring of reactions since the videos and the incident were made public, the local authorities in the principality of Assir, where the Khamis Mushait home is located, launched an investigation on August 31. They noted that no search warrant had been issued beforehand. No information has yet been released about the outcome of the investigation.
At the same time, residents of the home reported on Twitter that they were being harassed online, and being accused of deserving the attack. Some have had to suspend their accounts to protect themselves. The incident is not the first in Saudi Arabia: in 2014; police raided the Abha social home for girls in similar circumstances. Reports indicate that these social homes indirectly serve as detention centres where families send their "disobedient" daughters, even if they are of age.