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Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor is seeking the death penalty for five human rights activists who have been in pretrial detention without legal representation for over two years. The activists are currently being tried for their peaceful activism by Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), a terrorism tribunal which has been used to prosecute peaceful dissidents. The five activists at risk of the death penalty include human rights activist Israa al-Ghomgham, who would be the first female human rights activist to face capital punishment if the sentence is finalized.
Human Rights Watch reports that the activists have been accused of several crimes that do not resemble recognizable crimes, including “incitement to protest,” “chanting slogans hostile to the regime” and “attempting to inflame public opinion.” There execution has been based on the Islamic legal principle of ta’zir, where the judge has full discretion over the definition of what constitutes a crime over the sentence. The activists next court date will be held on the 28 October, 2018.
Sarah Lee 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 behavior, is monstrous.” Whitson continued, “Every day, the Saudi monarchy’s unrestrained despotism makes it harder for its public relations team to spin the fairy tale of ‘reform’ to allies and international business.”
The death penalty in general is an inhumane form of punishment which should have no place in modern society. With al-Ghomgham possibly being the first female activist to suffer from the death penalty for human-rights related protest and work, this sets an extremely dangerous precedent for other women activists. Human rights groups must continue to support activists and demand for the release of al-Ghomgham and the other detained activists.
Saudi Arabia has also ratified the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which upholds that countries that retain the death penalty must only use capital punishment for the “most serious crimes” in exceptional circumstances. Peaceful protest is not a crime, but a human right and should in no circumstances be justified as a serious crime. It is hoped that countries that value human rights and diplomatic freedom will remind Saudi Arabia of its international obligations that it has not only signed, but ratified.
The arrest, pretrial detention and possible execution of these activists are the result of the recent crackdown on women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia. This recent crackdown has led to the arrest of at least 13 women. Saudi Arabia have justified these arrests as a way to maintain national security. While some activists have been released, a number remain detained without legal representation or charge. Human Rights Watch have identified the detained activists as: “Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan, Nouf Abdelaziz, Mayaa al-Zahrani, Hatoon al Fassi, Samar Badawi, Nassema al-Sadah and Amal al-Harbi.” Several activists have been accused of serious crimes with the Saudi media identifying them as “traitors.”
No human rights activist should ever be arrested, detained and sentenced to death for peaceful protest. We must continue to spread awareness about the injustices that many human rights activists face on a daily basis. This awareness can someday lead to a reality where human rights can be freely and safely preached without the threat of imprisonment and death.