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Saudi Arabia investigates video of men attacking orphaned women and girls

Video posted on social media Wednesday shows women being dragged by their hair and handcuffed.

Authorities in Saudi Arabia have launched an investigation into a video that showed a group of men beating women with belts and dragging them by their hair at a residential facility.

The footage which began circulating on Wednesday shows a group of men, some of whom appear to be in uniform, chasing women into the courtyard of the facility in the southwestern Asir region of the country.

At several points, men can be seen grabbing women by the hair before their feet and hands are forcibly cuffed. At other points, men wielding what appear to be belts lash out at some of the women, most of whom are wearing black abayas and niqabs which cover the body and face. NBC News was unable to verify the ages or identities of women in the video which was widely circulated on social media.

ALQST, a British-based rights group which focuses on Saudi Arabia, said in a statement that the attack was a retaliation against women staging a sit-in and strike over living conditions inside the facility.

“According to the person posting the video material, the attack on the women came after they staged a sit-in and strike in protest over poor living conditions and the various ways in which the rights of young women kept in the home even on reaching adulthood are violated,” the statement said.

The state-run social care facilities are functionally no different from prisons for women who “disobey” male guardians, the statement added.

NBC News was unable to verify these claims.

Prince Turki bin Talal bin Abdulaziz, governor of the Asir region said in a statement Wednesday that he had authorized the formation of a committee to “investigate with all parties, and refer the case to the competent authority.”

The statement added that the incident took place at the Social Education House in Saudi Arabia's southwestern Asir region.

Samar Bint Hassan Ahmed Harbi, the facility’s director, did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment. 

Social education houses are used as orphanages for women and girls who do not have families or husbands, victims of domestic violence, or for people expelled from their homes by male family members.

Duaa Dhainy, a spokesperson for the European Saudi Organization on Human Rights (ESOHR) told NBC News that she had “concerns” for the girls who filmed the incident “and for the protesters.”

She was also skeptical about whether the investigation would lead to any prosecutions.

“With other human rights defenders, the investigations did not lead to accountability for the torturers, even in major cases. For example, in the case of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the killers were not held accountable,” she said Friday. 

“The current reality raises fear for the girls that they will face further charges, such as insulting the reputation of government facilities,” she added.

Research by ESOHR has found that protests at similar facilities have led to harsh prison sentences for those involved.

While Saudi Arabia in 2019 loosened guardianship laws which mandated that women could not study abroad without a male relative chaperone, work without permission, or be the legal guardians of their own children, Dhainy said she was worried because many of these laws continue to be enforced, despite being formally abolished.

“This incident happened in a special care home for orphaned women. They do not have families,” Dhainy said, adding that she feared the women would have nowhere to go.

Known for its poor human rights record, Saudi Arabia has been attempting to rebrand as increasingly open to the West by sponsoring new golf tournaments and holding music festivals.

In 2019, women were allowed to drive for the first time, and were given protections from employment discrimination.

But in March it was heavily criticized after 81 people were killed in a single mass execution and last month two women were sentenced to decades-long imprisonment over social media posts which the Saudi govenrment said criticized the state’s human rights record. 

President Joe Biden, who has previously vowed to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah” state, faced criticism from rights activists for his visit to the nation in July. They worried that his visit would embolden the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country's de facto leader.

The U.S. is one of many Western countries hoping to draw closer ties with gulf states and encourage them to increase oil production, in an effort to weaken Russia's stronghold in the market and to stave off a potential energy crisis at home.