A prosecutor in Saudi Arabia is calling for the execution of a prominent female Shia rights activist and four others — triggering renewed criticism by human rights groups and calls for their release. But the news has yet to elicit much of a response from the U.S. State Department.
Israa al-Ghomgham is among six activists arrested from the country’s Eastern Province of Qatif (under siege by the Saudi government for some time). Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for five of those activists, including al-Ghomgham and her husband, Moussa al-Hashem. Both were arrested in 2015 for participating in anti-government protests, and they are Shia in a Sunni Muslim country that sees members of the Shia community as dangerous opposition.
A Twitter account created this month in al-Ghomgham’s name — and using a childhood photo — is updating the latest reports on her plight while debunking a rumor that she has already been executed.
I am #IsraaAlGhomgham
One of the reasons #Saudi wants to sentence me to death is because I defended human rights & did so using social media like twitter & facebook
They are also charging me for creating a youtube account
Expression of peaceful opinion is not a capital crime pic.twitter.com/ftaBBZXtcW
— #IsraaAlGhomgham #إسراء_الغمغام (@IsraaAlGhomgham) August 23, 2018
Al-Ghomgham may be the first female human rights activist to be executed there. (It should be noted that while cases of Saudi Sunni women being executed are rare, cases of female migrants — often domestic workers — being executed are the norm.)
Saudi Arabia does not view her as a rights activist but as an agent of chaos “participating in protests in the Qatif region,” “chanting slogans hostile to the regime,” and “attempting to inflame public opinion” — charges Human Rights Watch (HRW) said “do not resemble recognizable crimes.”
The final session of her court case is on October 28, when a judge will either uphold or reverse the death penalty sought by the prosecution.
Michael Page, HRW’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa Division, told ThinkProgress that it’s unlikely that the death penalty will be reversed before the Saudi Specialized Criminal Court.
Answering questions via email, he said that there are some examples of Saudi prosecutors requesting the death penalty and the court not granting that request.
“But the court often increases the sentence upon appeal,” said Page.
As it stands, al-Ghomgham is far from the only headline from Saudi Arabia troubling human rights activists.
“Sentencing Israa al-Ghomgam to death would send a horrifying message that other activists could be targeted in the same way for their peaceful protest and human rights activism. The charges against Israa al-Ghomgam, which mostly relate to her peaceful participation in protests, are absurd and clearly politically motivated to silence dissent in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia,” said Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East Director of Campaign, in the statement released on Wednesday.
In a subsequent statement issued on Thursday marking the 100th day of detention for several women’s rights activists there — including Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan, and Aziza al-Yousef (who successfully pushed for women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia) — Hadid called on the United States, United Kingdom, and France to “campaign for [the release] of … all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally.”
Tepid statements from the U.S.
While the State Department has been very soft on these crackdowns (saying only that it is “aware” and “concerned”), the White House has been dead silent.
While members of his inner circle have been convicted of felonies, President Donald Trump has still found time to tweet about white nationalist conspiracies, but he has had nothing to say about Saudi Arabia’s treatment of human rights activists.
“Yes, the silence from the White House, and the timidity of State Department to say anything critical on Saudi Arabia’s escalation of repression against prominent women’s rights activists or even support Canada in the recent Saudi reaction to Canada’s uncontroversial call for rights activists to be freed — including Samar Badawi — is a clear signal that it enjoys close U.S. support,” said Page.
On the Saudi-Canadan spat, the State Department only said on Thursday that it hopes the two countries will arrive at “a quick resolution of differences through diplomatic channels.”
But Page hoped that condemnation from the State Department, “and even better, the White House,” might help encourage Saudi Arabia to rethink these crackdowns.
Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia made global headlines after it executed a man accused of murder and then displaying his body in a crucifixion just as it was in the midst of slamming Canada’s human rights record after its foreign ministry criticized the detention of several activists, including Saudi-American rights activist Samar Badawi.
The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been touted as a reformist by some in the U.S. media, who highlight the fact that he has allowed women to drive and to attend sports events in Saudi Arabia.
However, guardianship laws still remain in place, tethering virtually every aspect of women’s life — from legal to social — to their husbands, fathers, sons, or other male relatives.
Targeting of Shia activists
That Saudi Arabia is pursuing a death penalty against a woman is somewhat rare, although not unheard of. Even royals aren’t entirely protected: Princess Mishaal bint Fahd was executed along with her lover in 1977 on charges of adultery.
“[I]n this case I think the threat of execution is more closely related to the willingness to execute dissidents and activists from the Eastern Province, in which case it’s not that surprising. I do not expect to hear this about the other women activists,” a source who is in contact with activists in Saudi Arabia told ThinkProgress.
“This is about cracking down on Shia activism more than it is a story about treatment of women,” he added, shedding some light on how this case is being seen in Saudi Arabia.
That the Shia face a double standard before the courts is widely known but seldom acknowledged in the Kingdom.
According to a leaked 2007 diplomatic cable, in commenting on a high-profile case of a Shia rape victim sentence to 200 lashes, then Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir (now the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs) said that, “It is as difficult for an Eastern Province Shi’ite to receive justice from such a judge as it would have been for an African American to receive just treatment in the south in the 1950s.”
While HRW’s Page agrees that this case is itself more about “the suppression of fundamental rights to the Saudi Shia community,” he says it’s probably not a coincidence that the recently-reorganized public prosecution is seeking the death penalty now, as women’s rights activists are being detained.
“So I think it’s a warning for all activists, including those in the Shia community in the Eastern Province, but it’s also a concerning development given the accusations of treason in the media against women’s rights activists now in prison — which could also carry the death penalty, although they’ve not been brought to court yet so it’s unclear,” said Page.
It should also be noted that while Saudi Arabia, Saudi which sits on the U.N. Women’s Rights Commission, is not the only country that executes women. The United States has executed 54 women since 1900, though certainly none on charges of civil disobedience.
According to the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, there are 51 people on death row in Saudi Arabia right now. As of October 2017, there were 2,792 inmates on death row in the United States.