On 26 March 2019, ALQST and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) organised a public event in UK Parliament focusing on the Saudi women human rights defenders on trial and strategies to set them free. The event was co-sponsored by Front Line Defenders and PEN International and was hosted by UK Member of Parliament Layla Moran, a member of the Detention Review Panel (DRP) mandated to review the detention conditions of the women who have faced torture, ill-treatment and sexual harassment.
The event was moderated by human rights lawyer Melanie Gingell, executive member of the Bar Human Rights Committee, who opened by highlighting the importance of drawing attention to the women’s rights activists still in detention, who have been subjected to brutal torture. There are 11 women now on trial, facing unspecified charges, and nine of them are being prosecuted in connection with their human rights work.
The second trial session of 11 women took place on 27 March. In this session, the women laid out their defence, and told the judges of the abuse they faced in detention. The date of the next hearing was also scheduled (to be announced later). Foreign journalists and diplomats were prevented from attending. The women’s rights defenders on trial are Loujain Al-Hathloul, Aziza Al-Youssef, Eman Al-Nafjan, Amal Al-Harbi, Hatoon Al-Fassi, Shadan Al-Onezi, Mayaa Al-Zahrani, Nouf Abdelaziz and Abeer Alnamankany. Rokaya Mohareb and an unidentified woman are also on trial.
Khalid Ibrahim, GCHR Executive Director, highlighted the prominent role of women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia, such as Samar Badawi, who won the 2012 International Women of Courage award after successfully filing a complaint to the government for not allowing women to vote, and Nassima Al-Sadah, who co-founded the Al-Adalah Centre of Human Rights. Both women were arrested on 30 July 2018 for their human rights work, and have still not been charged and put on trial with the other women’s rights defenders. “It is not just enough to release them, but there must also be comprehensive reform,” he said. He also mentioned some of the many other human rights defenders currently behind bars, such as Khaled Al-Omair, who was sentenced to eight years in prison for his human rights work. He was released in 2017, only to be re-arrested in 2018 after he filed a complaint against his torturers.
Dr. Hala Al-Dosari, an academic and activist who was recently selected as the first Jamal Khashoggi fellow for the “Washington Post”, gave some context to the current crackdown in the country, including the rise to power of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) and the passing of several regressive measures, including the revision of the anti-terror law in 2017. She described the scale of the crackdown, mentioning that there are currently over 5000 political prisoners, of which at least 3000 have been held in excess of six months without charge
Al-Dosari also pointed to the importance of the international dimension. It was international and regional support that helped to embolden MBS in the first place, convinced by his rhetoric of reform. And it was also international pressure following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi that has led to some concessions, such as the acknowledgement by the government, after 12 denials, of state involvement in Khashoggi’s murder.
Yahya Assiri, Director of ALQST, discussed the ongoing trial of women human rights defenders, whose trial began on 13 March. He said it was revealing that the Saudi government initially claimed the women had communicated with foreign intelligence, but this communication turned out only to be with human rights defenders and organisations, journalists and UN bodies. He said that the case being moved at the last minute from the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) to a regular criminal court shows us two things. Firstly, that the government responds to international pressure. And secondly, that the Saudi judiciary is not independent, and that the charges against the women are in fact political.
Writer and analyst Hana Al-Khamri described the brutal nature of the Saudi government, which opposes all dissent whatsoever. In fact, she argued it is more dangerous to be a human rights defender than a terrorist in Saudi Arabia. She noted that buzzwords like “reform” and “Vision 2030” do not include respect for fundamental rights. To illustrate this, she mentioned some of the violations that are committed routinely, including the arrest and imprisonment of peaceful dissidents, systematic torture and ill-treatment, and the use of death sentences for non-violent crimes.
Al-Khamri pointed to some of the reforms that are needed, including ending the use of the SCC for non-terrorism crimes and abolishing the male guardianship system. She is the author of the upcoming book “Female Journalists in Gender-Apartheid Saudi Arabia”.
During the Q&A with the audience, the question of the ongoing trial of the women human rights defenders was raised. The speakers said it is hard to predict what will happen given that the trial has so far been shrouded in secrecy, from not letting journalists and diplomats observe to not publishing the charges. On the question of what the international community can do to pressure the Saudi regime, the speakers called for further steps to follow up on the joint statement by 36 states at the UN Human Rights Council, and for further accountability mechanisms to be established, such as the establishment of a new Special Rapporteur focusing on Saudi Arabia.
Gingell also pointed to measures taken by UK parliamentarians, including the DRP that MP Moran sits on, and an Early Day Motion (EDM). But she said that these must be followed by more substantive measures, and at the governmental level.
Finally, on what individuals themselves can do to support the detained Saudi human rights defenders, Al-Dosari called on everyone to use the hashtag #StandWithSaudiHeroes, to celebrate the brave and crucial work of Saudi human rights defenders and to call for their immediate release. Gingell reminded us to keep mentioning their names as they deserve our support.