Saudi Arabian prosecutors are seeking the death sentence for five human rights activists, including a woman who is thought to be the first female campaigner in the country facing execution, rights groups have said.
Israa al-Ghomgham, a Shia activist arrested with her husband in 2015, will be tried in the country’s terrorism tribunal even though charges she faces relate to peaceful activism, 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,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW.
Together with her husband, Moussa al-Hashem, and three other defendants, Ghomgham faces charges that “do not resemble recognisable crimes”, HRW said.
They include participating in protests, chanting slogans hostile to the regime, attempting to inflame public opinion and filming protests and publishing on social media.
Saudi Shia citizens face systematic discriminationin the majority-Sunni nation, including obstacles to seeking work and education, and restrictions on religious practice. Ghomgahm had joined and documented mass protests for Shia rights that began in 2011 as the Arab spring swept across the region.
The activist is next due in court on 28 October, and the trial will cast a further shadow on crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to promote himself as a modernising reformer.
The kingdom’s youngest ruler in the modern era, the 32-year-old power behind the throne has pledged to rein in religious extremists, diversify a moribund, oil-dependent economy, and liberalise a deeply conservative social order.
He has rolled back some restrictions on women including a long-standing ban on female drivers, launched economic reforms, allowed cinemas to open for the first time in decades, and imprisoned some of his most powerful royal relatives in an anti-corruption drive.
But social and economic transformation have gone hand-in-hand with a tightening of political controls, as the crown prince has made clear he wants the new Saudi Arabia to remain an absolute monarchy, shaped only by him.
Ahead of lifting the ban on female drivers, authorities arrested more than a dozen of the activists who had campaigned for the very change that he was bringing in. Several are now approaching 100 days in jail without legal representation, and branded “traitors” by local media.
“If the crown prince is truly serious about reform, he should immediately step in to ensure no activist is unjustly detained for his or her human rights work,” said HRW’s Whitson.
The campaign to muzzle critics has not just been domestic. Saudi Arabia dramatically cut all ties with Canada after the country’s foreign minister tweeted a call for the release of two jailed activists.
The Canadian ambassador was expelled, Saudi scholarship students told to leave Canada and new trade and investment suspended. Other countries including Germany and Sweden have also come under pressure for censuring Riyadh.
Women have been executed before in Saudi Arabia, which has one of the world’s highest rates of execution: suspects convicted of terrorism, homicide, rape, armed robbery and drug trafficking face the death penalty.
But Ghomgham is the first woman to possibly face execution for activism, and other campaigners fear it could set a dangerous precedent. She will be tried in the specialised criminal court set up in 2008 for terrorism cases. The kingdom has previously executed Shia activists following trials at the same court that Amnesty International described as “grossly unfair”.
The UN has also previously warned that Saudi Arabia was abusing anti-terror laws and institutions to crack down on dissent.
“I am concerned about the unacceptably broad definition of terrorism and the use of Saudi Arabia’s 2014 counter-terrorism law and other national security provisions against human rights defenders, writers, bloggers, journalists and other peaceful critics,” UN special rapporteur Ben Emmerson said after a visit to Saudi Arabia last year.