Saudi authorities detain women human rights defenders in latest crackdown


Over a dozen human rights defenders advocating for women's rights remain in detention and stand to face lengthy prison sentences while the Saudi Media brands them as “traitors”. As previously reported in the CIVICUS Monitor, they included advocates and supporters of the #Oct26driving, #Right2Drive and #IAmMyOwnGuardian campaigns who have been very critical about the discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia.

On 30th July 2018, security forces arrested two more women human rights defenders, Samar Badawi and Nassima Al-Sadah. It is reported that the two are held in solitary confinement in a prison that is controlled by the state security presidency. Amal Al-Harbi, the wife of prominent activist Fowzan Al-Harbi, was also arrested by State Security on 30th July 2018 and taken to an unknown location. Her husband is one of the imprisoned founding members of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), as reported previously in the CIVICUS Monitor.

The arrest and detention of human rights defenders was condemned by UN experts in late June and July 2018 who urged the Saudi authorities to unconditionally release all human rights defenders and activists who have been detained for their peaceful human rights work, including their decades-long campaigns for the lifting of the driving ban for women.

Commenting on the worrying spate of arrests, UN experts said;

“In stark contrast with this celebrated moment of liberation for Saudi women, women’s human rights defenders have been arrested and detained on a wide scale across the country, which is truly worrying and perhaps a better indication of the Government’s approach to women’s human rights. We call for the urgent release of all of those detained while pursuing their legitimate activities in the promotion and protection of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.”

The arrests were also condemned by Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister. Angered by this, on 5th August, the Saudi Arabian government, expelled the Canadian Ambassador and froze trade deals with Canada in retaliation.

Ironically, in early June, Saudi Arabia issued the first driving licences to women after it announced a lift on the ban on driving for women. The activists however remain in detention.

Peaceful assembly

In solidarity with the women’s rights human rights defenders detained for protesting the driving ban on women, on 23rd August 2018, women drivers staged a driving protest outside the embassy of Saudi Arabia in London. The protest was dubbed the ‘beep for freedom protest’ and saw female drivers drive around the embassy, beeping horns and chanting slogans to protest the lapse of 100 days since the detentions of the Saudi Arabian activists.

Several Saudi activists have been arrested, detained, prosecuted and others have had their passports confiscated for participation in peaceful protests. Most recently, on 21st August 2018 trial began for Israa Al-Ghomgham, 32 months after she was arrested and detained in December 2015 together with her husband for participating in a protest. Israa’s case is being heard in the Specialised Criminal Court, a court initially established to hear terrorism cases but which has been increasingly used to convict human rights defenders. She is facing eight different charges including joining a terrorist entity, participating in gatherings and marches, and encouraging young people to join those marches.

During the hearing, the public prosecutor recommended that the court issue a death sentence by beheading. If the recommendation is adopted by the court, Israa will become the first woman ever to be executed by Saudi Arabia for political crimes.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch said:

“Any execution is appalling, but seeking the death penalty for activists like Israa al-Ghomgham, who are not even accused of violent behaviour, is monstrous.”

The case will be heard next on 31st October 2018. Israa was arrested in December 2015 along with her husband, Moussa Al-Hashem, because of their role in organising peaceful anti-government protests in Qatif in the Kingdom’s Eastern Province in the wake of the Arab Spring, as well as for calling for human rights reform and the release of human rights activists. Since her arrest, Saudi authorities have detained her in Dammam General Intelligence Prison.