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‘No one is listening’: Pakistani mothers jailed in Saudi Arabia call for help

A year ago, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the release of 2,100 Pakistanis from Saudi prisons. It's unclear how many have actually been returned
On the outskirts of Lahore, Babar holds a photo of his family including his mother, Bilqis, held in a Saudi prison since 2017 (MEE/Suddaf Chaudry)
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Lahore, Pakistan

Mohamed Saeed sits on a bed, looking at pictures of his mother who has been held in a Saudi jail for the past three years. 

For years Saeed’s mother Zohra Naveen, a housewife, had been desperate to perform umrah, a Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, but was unable to afford the trip. 

'I knew that if I spoke, my son would be harmed'

- Zohra Naveen, housewife held in Saudi prison 

So when Naveen met a woman named Pomi at a local clothing store who said she could cover the entire cost of the journey, Saeed and Naveen’s friends say she jumped at the chance.

“Zohra is a sweet-natured woman. She only saw the good in people,” Riffat, a neighbour, tells Middle East Eye. “She was duped.”

It was only when Naveen was en route to Saudi Arabia that someone travelling with her revealed that she had drugs in her bag and that her son, Salim, was being held by Pomi's associates back in Pakistan.

Speak up when they landed, she was told, and put Salim's life at risk.

(MEE/Suddaf Chaudry)
Zohra Naveen had dreamed of visiting Mecca for years. When she was offered a free trip, she jumped at the chance (MEE/Suddaf Chaudry)

“I was not screened or questioned in Islamabad, but I suspected something was wrong. I knew that if I spoke, my son would be harmed,” she told MEE from Dhahban Central Prison in Jeddah where she is permitted to make regular calls home.

Naveen is among 3,240 Pakistani prisoners currently being held in Saudi jails, according to the latest figures released by Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  

Many of those, say human rights campaigners, are people like Naveen who went to the kingdom to fulfil religious duties or pursue jobs, but instead ended up in prison, often as a result of serving as unwitting drug mules.

One year later

These prisoners are clearly on the radar of both Saudi and Pakistani officials. During a visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Islamabad a year ago this week, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan raised the plight of the prisoners and, while still in the country, the crown prince ordered the release of 2,100 prisoners. 

But so far, it is unclear exactly how many have come back.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry says that 2,080 have returned while the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis puts the figure at 1,790. Both ministries say their totals are based on lists shared by the Saudi government.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan greet one another in Islamabad last February (AFP)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan greet one another in Islamabad last February (AFP)

MEE repeatedly asked officials in both ministries why their figures are different, but could not get clear answers.

Frustrated by the confusion and what they describe as the government's hands-off approach, relatives and rights campaigners are pushing for greater action and more transparency.

Sarah Belal is the executive director of the Lahore-based Justice Project Pakistan, a non-profit which has taken legal action to force the government to do more and has been attempting to verify the figures released by the ministries.

“Less than 5 percent of Pakistanis have been repatriated since the crown prince’s royal pardon,” Belal says her organisation has established. “It is unclear what the hold up is.” 

Billions at stake

For decades, Pakistanis have been heading to Saudi Arabia in search of employment opportunities. Currently, 2.7 million Pakistanis live in the kingdom and reportedly sent back more than $3.7bn in remittances last year. 

In addition to remittances, the kingdom has become increasingly important to Pakistan’s economy after offering $6bn in loans in late 2018 to avert a balance of payments crisis. 

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Three months later, during the Saudi crown prince’s visit to Pakistan, the kingdom signed another $20bn in investment deals. 

Caught in the middle of all this are Pakistani prisoners in the kingdom who fall into a no-man’s land of bureaucracy and language barriers once behind bars, say campaigners.

“If you are a foreign national in any jail, you are at a huge disadvantage because they do not understand the legal system,” said Belal. 

Under an international treaty signed in the 1960s, there are a specific set of obligations required of a host state and a state with visiting citizens in these kinds of situations. But reality works out a bit differently than what’s on paper, she said.

“The constraints on resources to engage lawyers or legal aid means the entire process itself is stacked against inmates because the detainee does not have a network of support. Therefore, they are inherently at a disadvantage,” she said.

According to a 2018 Human Rights Watch report, Saudi officials frequently failed to inform Pakistani consular officials when Pakistani citizens were arrested, leaving the burden on detainees and their family members.

Zohra and 18 other Pakistani inmates with whom she is being held told MEE that they have not been contacted by any Pakistani government officials since they entered prison. They have been working with Justice Project Pakistan to initiate a dialogue with the government, but so far to no avail.

Swallowing stones

In rural Kasur on the outskirts of Lahore, Babar, who declined to give his last name, tells MEE about his mother, Bilqis, who was arrested in Jeddah in 2017 after customs officials found drugs in her system.

Babar didn’t speak for long: soon Bilqis rang for her weekly call to her family from prison. Her ordeal, she said, started at the factory where she worked and befriended a woman named Shagufta.

'She claimed the capsules contained precious stones. I had to swallow them in order to avoid excise duty'

Bilqis, held in a Saudi prison since 2017

Shagufta, in turn, introduced Bilqis to her friend, Wassim, and the two offered her a free pilgrimage to the holy land. The only catch? She would just need to swallow some capsules ahead of her flight which would be given to a contact in Saudi Arabia once they were passed.

“She claimed the capsules contained precious stones. I had to swallow them in order to avoid excise duty,” Bilqis said.

“I know what you think. I’m not crazy. I honestly believed this woman and her husband were helping me fulfil my wish as a Muslim to go to Mecca.”

Barbar jumps in. “Why was my mother not screened at the airport in Lahore? She has been in jail for two years after falling victim to this criminal couple,” he said.

If his mother had been questioned in Pakistan, he said, she would not be in the mess she is in today. “We have no access to legal aid or a lawyer. I don’t know what will happen. I'm terrified for her future,” he said.

Bilqis was arrested along with two young boys and another couple, all Pakistanis who were on the same flight. The young boys, Abdul Nohman and Abdul Oman, were returned to Pakistan in 2018. 

When they came back, the boys now aged nine and five years old, couldn’t explain what had happened in Saudi Arabia easily because they only spoke Arabic.

Pakistani children released from Saudi prisons wait for relatives in Islamabad (AFP)
Pakistani children released from Saudi prisons wait for relatives in Islamabad (AFP)

“The boys were very traumatised. They received no after care from authorities,” said Sohail Yafat, a Justice Project Pakistan investigator.

“Many families, once they receive loved ones back, do not want to discuss the issue any further due to threats and concern that the situation may repeat itself.”

Fuzzy figures

Even now, a year after Imran Khan raised his concerns for prisoners with Mohammed bin Salman, there is a lingering discrepancy among Pakistani officials over just how many of the country’s citizens remain in Saudi prisons.

MEE asked Sayed Zulfiqar Bukhari, minister of overseas Pakistanis, why his ministry – which says that 1,790 Pakistanis have been released – has different figures than the foreign ministry claims that 2,080 have come home.

He insisted that it was a complex situation, and that the delay and confusion had been caused by Saudi Arabia.

“I do agree with the NGOs that the Saudi authorities were slow at the beginning. They needed a mechanism in place,” Bukhari said.

'Neither the prime minister or the crown prince understand or know the real details on this issue'

- Sarah Belal, Justice Project Pakistan

MEE asked Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi to comment on the discrepancy in figures, but he declined to comment.

MEE also repeatedly asked the Saudi embassy in Islamabad to answer a series of questions, including why there is confusion over the official number of Pakistanis in Saudi jails and why so many are being held, but embassy officials declined to comment.

Belal says that after a JPP investigation, her organisation believes that 500 prisoners who are being counted by both ministries had actually already returned before the Saudi crown prince’s pardon. JPP has filed a petition in court to further investigate the government’s list. 

“Now the ball is in the Pakistani government court to approach the Saudi authorities to get some clarity on the issue. There was no sustained follow up by the government to verify the list that was shared by the Saudi authorities,” she said.

“I think given the fact the Saudis released a list of 500 and the Pakistanis accepted, neither the prime minister or the crown prince understand or know the real details on this issue. I think that if they did, they would be incredibly embarrassed on both sides.” 

The upper hand

Pakistan is currently awaiting approval from the Saudi government for officials with the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis to visit prisons in the kingdom, but officials have said they expect to make their trip this month. 

As time passes, analysts say it is becoming clear that Islamabad lacks the power to effect real change in the situation. 

Talat Masood, a retired three-star Pakistani general and political commentator, told MEE that the stalled efforts cast the country’s leadership in a poor light. 

“It is not a good reflection on Pakistan that so many prisoners are languishing in the jail of a friendly nation. The Saudis would be concerned that this move to return Pakistani prisoners does not set a precedent that rules can be broken.”

I tell him, ‘I am not a smuggler’. I ask him, ‘Please, tell the Pakistani authorities’, but I worry that no one is listening

- Bilqis, held in a Saudi prison since 2017

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program and senior associate for South Asia at the Washington, DC-based Wilson Center, said Saudi Arabia has the upper hand.

“I don’t think Islamabad is in a position to complain about any perceived delay, given that Saudi Arabia is still releasing prisoners, albeit not at the pace that Islamabad would prefer,” Kugelman said.

The Saudis are also, he added, “providing extensive financial support to Islamabad as Pakistan struggles through economic distress. So there is a leverage factor that works in Saudi Arabia’s favour”.

These points, however, are moot for prisoners like Bilqis and her family, left in limbo. At the end of her weekly call, she begins to cry.

“I am neither alive or dead in this jail. There are women from all over the world. Some have been sentenced to over 15 years. I will only be released if someone pardons me,” she said. 

“The Saudi embassy sends an adviser, but he does not document my case or listen. I tell him, ‘I am not a smuggler’. I ask him, ‘Please, tell the Pakistani authorities’, but I worry that no one is listening.”