The State Department is actively seeking U.S. contractors to aid Saudi Arabian prison officials, according to federal procurement records reviewed by TYT.

The assistance will come in the form of a training program, carried out by an American contractor, regarding management of incarcerated women, according to the documents. Human-rights observers have noted a recent spike in the number of female political prisoners there, and the treatment of women has been a long-standing issue in a nation that has been faulted for a range of human-rights abuses.

The new training program is being started at a time when President Donald Trump is drawing criticism for the US relationship with the Saudis. Specific issues include his real-estate dealings, and his handling of the alleged murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi who was living in the United States. Khashoggi reportedly had his fingers cut off while he was still alive and was then beheaded.

Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly referred to as MBS, had personally authorized an operation to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and then detain him, according to a report in The Washington Post citing U.S. intelligence intercepts.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo drew specific criticism for an apparently amiable meeting this week with MBS. It’s not clear from the State Department documents whether Pompeo authorized or even knows about the new Saudi prison training plans.

Among the documents is a request for proposals (RFP), titled “SAUDI ARABIA WOMEN’S CORRECTIONS ACADEMY TRAINING PROJECT” and marked “procurement sensitive.” The RFP details the State Department’s plans to aid the kingdom in the management of its prisons.

The deadline for contractors to submit proposals for the project is October 29th of this year. The period of performance is one year, and includes options for up to two additional years of performance.

While contractors are required to be U.S. citizens, much of the work will take place in Saudi Arabia — though not all. The documents also detail plans to fly Saudi prison officials to the U.S. in order to train them here.

Throughout the documents, the State Department is careful to stress its concern for human rights: “Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior (MOI)’s General Directorate on Prisons (GDP) seeks to advance a bilateral project with the goal of developing a women corrections academy training that graduates GDP staff that are prepared for work in a modern correctional setting that conforms to internationally-accepted best correctional practices and human rights standards.”

Regardless of the conditions, human-rights observers say that Saudi Arabia’s prisons are filled with detainees who should not be there.

“All of the colleagues that I have there [in Saudi prisons] were convicted under trials for speech crimes,” said Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The system contains people who shouldn’t be in jail.”

Although it can be difficult to ascertain information about Saudi Arabia’s prisons — there is no independent monitoring, Coogle says — his team has managed to gain some insights from a network of sources within the prison system. The picture they paint is not a pretty one, especially with respect to intelligence prisons.

“People are often held in these facilities pre-trial and put in solitary confinement and are mistreated with a view towards coercing confessions that are later used in court to convict the person. We have lots of accounts of that,” Coogle said.

According to the documents reviewed by TYT, U.S. contractors are to train Saudi prison officials in various areas, including “Prisoner Classification and Intake, Prisoner Transportation and Escort, Prison Intelligence Unit Operations/Security Threat Groups, and Emergency Management and Emergency Response Teams (ERT).”

Saudi prison RFP excerpt

The contractors are to train up to 50 Saudi prison officials, after which additional training contracts may be awarded.

The records also state that “training will be both classroom-based along with physical, hands-on training for women corrections training academy instructors in the KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia].”

The State Department records say that only the “best correctional practices and human rights standards” will be observed. However, the Saudi prison system has been implicated in numerous rights issues, according to Coogle.

Coogle also noted that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of women detained for political activism under MBS.

“This is a new kind of deal. Typically in Saudi Arabia jailing of women was something that’s pretty taboo. It wasn’t really done,” Coogle said.

“If you look at back in the early days of the driving activists, they would get detained in a police station for a couple of hours, sign a pledge and walk out. … The whole women in detention thing is a little bit new.”

“It’s like MBS just decided to hell with it, lock ‘em all up.”

U.S. cooperation with the Saudis predates the Trump Administration by decades and members of both parties frequently defend Saudi Arabia as an essential ally in the region. Saudi involvement in the Yemen civil war has sharpened existing concerns about the US-Saudi partnership, however. TYT previously reported that U.S.-made helicopters have been used by the Saudis in combat in Yemen.

In August, TYT revealed that the Pentagon was to begin training Saudi military pilots here.

Ken Klippenstein is a senior investigative reporter for TYT. He can be reached on Twitter @kenklippenstein or via email: [email protected].

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