Female Activist Faces Death Penalty in Saudi Arabia, Setting a New Precedent


Saudi rights activist Israa al-Ghomgham went to trial this week and will return on October 28, facing the death penalty and if she is found guilty, she will be the first woman to be beheaded in Saudi Arabia. According to the Washington Post, Ghomgham faces charges of participating in protests, “provoking” young people to join the protests, instigating a “soft revolution” as the authorities referred to it, and going to Iran where she “learned how to create chaos”, according to authorities. Ghomgham was arrested in a house raid back in December of 2015, according to International Business Times (IBT), and has been detained along with her husband Moussa al-Hashem ever since. After being brought before Saudi Arabia’s specialized criminal court, they both face the death penalty along with four other activistis according to the Washington Post. They are being tried under Saudi Arabia’s terrorism tribunal by the public prosecutor, according Aljazeera, though IBT reports that Ghomgham is facing an unfair trial and this process is simply a “show trial.” Preparing to face court again in October, the victims on trial have been held for three years now with no legal representation, according to Aljazeera, and Ghomgham was unable to afford a private lawyer until her father petitioned one, as reported by IBT.

Human rights groups around the world are horrified by the country’s treatment of Ghomgham and her fellow activists. The Institute for Gulf Affairs director Ali al Ahmed reported to IBT that Ghomgham “the Saudi government is clearly trying to use [her protesting history] to send a message that we will not spare anyone, woman or not.” Hiba Zayadin a researcher for Human Rights Watch Saudi Arabia told NBC “it is unprecedented that they would seek the death penalty for a woman.” Direcotor of Campaigns for Amnesty International in the Middle East, Samah Hadid, said that the death sentence would “send a horrifying message that other activists could be targeted in the same way for their peaceful protest and human rights activism,” as reported by NBC. Saudi authorities have yet to respond to this international outrage and it may be because “every day, the Saudi monarchy’s unrestrained despotism makes it harder for its public relations teams to spin the fairy tale of ‘reform’ to allies and international business,” according to Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch for the Middle East, as reported by the Washington Post.

Though Ghomgham is not the first Saudi activist to wrongfully face the death penalty for peacefully protesting, her death could open door for even further human rights violations in the country. It is unforgivable and inhumane that a peaceful activist could face these charges and furthermore, undergo an entirely rigged and unjust trial. Thanks to human rights watch groups, Ghomgham has the world’s attention and now it is time for the appropriate forces to intervene. Though this change has to come from within and saving Ghomgham’s life will not put an end the unjust and sexist system that she has fallen victim to, saving Ghomgham and the five other activists she stands with could be the first step to save a lot more lives in the future. This execution must be prevented with political and peaceful intervention in order to create a country that people like Ghomgham fight for.

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and supposedly the real power behind the throne is bringing in an era of change, trying to liberalize the country’s social order and lessen religious extremism while still maintaining an absolute monarchy, according to the Guardian. Salman has lifted the ban on women drivers, imprisoned some fellow members of the royal family to weed out corruption, and introduced economic reforms, the Guardian continues. But alongside many of Salman’s liberal and feminist changes, he is still a politically restrictive force–before lifting the female driver ban, officials arrested the very activist who were protesting to lift the same ban. CNN reports that crown prince speaks for a predominantly Sunni Muslim Kingdom and activists such as Ghomgham were in fact speaking out for minority rights for Shia Muslims such as themselves, when they were arrested. Thus, despite Salman’s liberal reforms, he has still placed Ghogham under the death penalty for peacefully speaking out for minority as well as women’s rights. And though Ghomgham may be the first woman to be beheaded in Saudi Arabia, the Washington Post reports that the country uses the death penalty more than almost any other country, committing 146 executions just last year.

As Ghogham and her fellow activists wait for the trial in October, human rights groups are continuing to speak out for the human rights violations that she faces. The Middle East Director of Human Rights Watch put it simply to the Washington Post–”any execution is appalling, but seeking the death penalty for activists like Israa al-Ghomgham, who are not even accused of violent behavior, is monstrous.” And as Salman and authorities continue to remain silent on the matter, Ghogham gains more and more support and solidarity from international forces.