The Ongoing Arrest and Detention of Women Human Rights Defenders

In May 2019, Amnesty International marked Saudi Arabia’s disgraceful “Year of Shame” in remembrance of a year’s passing since the arrest of several prominent women human rights defenders (WHRDs). Amnesty International stated that “a year ago, the authorities started locking up some of Saudi Arabia’s bravest women activists, instead of celebrating hand in hand steps that should have served to advance the rights of women in the country.”

Despite reforms that appear to work towards progress and modernization, such as the lift of the long-standing ban on female drivers in June 2018 and their travel restrictions in August 2019, Saudi authorities have cracked down on WHRDs while utilizing the media to further discredit female activists as traitors to the kingdom; Saudi authorities have continuously repressed activists and dissidents for peaceful activities. Since 2011, the courts have convicted approximately 30 prominent activists, many of them receiving sentences of 10 to 15 years under broad legislation expressly designed to criminalize dissent.

The perpetual degradation of Saudi women and their human rights is nowhere more apparent than in the case of Loujain al-Hathloul, a Saudi women’s rights activist, social media figure, and political prisoner. Al-Hathloul is well known for her campaign against the women’s driver ban and was arrested in May 2018 alongside several other women’s rights activists. Their charges included promoting women’s rights, calling for an end to the male guardianship system, as well as contacting international organizations, foreign media, and other activists. In November 2018, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch stated that “several Saudi human rights activists, including a number of women, had reportedly faced sexual harassment, torture and other forms of ill-treatment during interrogation since being arbitrarily arrested in May 2018 (including al-Hathloul). According to three separate testimonies, officials at Dhahban Prison repeatedly tortured the detained activists by electrocution and flogging; some were left unable to walk or stand properly and with uncontrolled shaking of the hands and marks on the body.”

Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, International Service for Human Rights, the Gulf Center for Human Rights, and Women’s March Global have all advocated for the immediate and unconditional release of Saudi human rights defenders who have been detained solely for their support of women’s rights.  The aforementioned organizations, as well as many other non-governmental organizations worldwide, continue to call for these women to receive access to their families and lawyers of choice, to have Saudi hold related criminal investigations in a transparent manner, and to encourage the kingdom to adhere to international standards of a fair trial.

The Attack on Freedom of Expression and Dissent

Saudi Arabia’s restriction on freedom of expression and dissent both nationally and internationally is a cause for concern. ADHRB’s 2017 report Voice for The Voiceless – Religious and Cultural Discrimination in Saudi Arabia explores media censorship within the nation. As noted, newspapers in the kingdom are “privately owned, but publicly subsidized and closely monitored by the government.” Due to the 2003 Press and Publications Law and the 2007 Anti-Cybercrime Law, which work to regulate media content, many news and media outlets practice self-censorship. In early 2014, the Saudi government publicised its Law on Terrorism and its Financing, which was decried as overly broad and restrictive. With its vague wording, the government has used its implementation to arrest critics and dissidents.

Saudi Arabia’s campaign against all forms of dissent was highlighted in an October 2018 report by ADHRB’s, entitled Jamal Khashoggi and Essam al-Zamel: Victims of Saudi Arabia’s Increasing Repression.

Essam al-Zamel, Saudi citizen and well-known economist and businessman with a popular social media presence was targeted in what was called a ‘wave of arrests’ in September 2017; this followed his criticism of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan for the state-owned oil company Aramco. Saudi’s broad terrorism legislation allowed the government to indict al-Zamel with charges including “alleged membership to the Muslim Brotherhood, communicating with Qatar, and giving sensitive information to foreign diplomats without permission.” The latter are all considered acts of terrorism according to the country’s counter-terrorism laws. According to ADHRB, al-Zamel’s arrest parallels “other detentions that have been increasing over the past few years.”

In recent years, Saudi has embarked on a campaign to crush dissent. This has been doubly reinforced, firstly through the promulgation of the November 2017 revision of the Law on Terrorism and its Financing, and secondly by the creation of the Presidency of State Security (PSS) when the Ministry of Interior was stripped of its domestic security function. According to ADHRB, “the PSS is responsible for surveilling and arresting dozens of human rights defenders, activists, clerics, academics, and dissidents.”

Following the infamous case of Jamal Khashoggi, this system of national surveillance became known internationally.

On 2 October 2018, “Saudi officials at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared, and murdered prominent dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” Khashoggi was the former advisor to Turki bin Faisal, Saudi prince and former director of the country’s intelligence agency. Before fleeing Saudi, Khashoggi was known for his column in al-Hayat; the column was banned in 2017 after Khashoggi started taking a more critical turn against Mohammed bin Salman. Fearing arrest, Khashoggi fled Saudi in June 2017 and had since been living in the United States.

Khashoggi also wrote for The Washington Post, where he remained critical of Mohammed bin Salman until his death. In his last piece from September 2018, Khashoggi stated, “[w]e Saudis deserve better.” Following his death, the Saudi government refused to admit its guilt. However, following international pressure, it has since emerged that Khashoggi was killed in a manner pre-meditated. Five people were sentenced to death, while three others were sentenced to imprisonment by the Saudi Criminal Court in Riyadh. Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director, stated that “[t]his verdict is a whitewash which brings neither justice nor the truth for Jamal Khashoggi and his loved ones. The trial has been closed to the public and to independent monitors, with no information available as to how the investigation was carried out.”

This is a clear sign that the Saudi Government is hurtling toward a more authoritarian style of censorship, both on a national and international scale.

The Failure to Adhere to International Standards of a Fair Trial

The right to a fair trial is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the cornerstone of the international human rights system. In 1948, it was ratified across the globe though not by Saudi. Despite it being reaffirmed in legally binding treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Saudi have failed to recognize treaties with its customary international law application, as well as other standards adopted by the United Nations and regional intergovernmental bodies.

The “right to a fair trial” as acknowledged by international treaties, set out the minimum guarantees that all systems should ensure true justice, respect the rule of law, and respect the right to fair criminal proceedings. These standards apply to investigations, arrests, and detention, as well as throughout pre and post-trial proceedings, including the appeal process, sentencing, and punishment. Furthermore, they constitute a collective agreement by the international community on the criteria for assessing how governments must treat citizens suspected, accused, and convicted of crimes, extending from minor to the most egregious cases.

As reported by Amnesty International, “[t]he basis of the unfair nature of trials in Saudi Arabia resides in the fact that its criminal justice system is designed to cater primarily for the might of the state at the expense of the rights of the individual.” The unfair nature of trials is systemic and begins with the very first steps of a judicial proceeding. This imbalance is visible throughout the entire criminal justice procedure, from arrest through to detention. Beginning with the suspect being arrested without judicial warrant, detainees have reported being held incommunicado with their families unaware of their whereabouts, being detained for prolonged periods of time without habeas corpus, and being denied access to legal counsel before being charged.

Chapter 1 of Saudi’s judicial law states that judges work independently and are not subject to any authority other than the provisions of Sharia and the laws in force. However, in practice, the judiciary and other governmental bodies are deeply entwined, as evidenced in their requirement to coordinate their practices in accordance with ideologies held by the King and Crown Prince. Evidencing this is the fact that Saudi judges have received implicit instructions to issue harsh sentences against human rights activists, reformers, journalists, and dissidents. Activists further report that judicial and prosecutorial authorities ignore due-process related complaints, including the client’s lack of access to a lawyer at critical stages of the judicial process, particularly during the pretrial/investigation phase.

Ongoing Death Penalty Cases and People on Death Row

As of July 2019, Saudi authorities were known to have carried out at least 134 executions. According to Amnesty International, of these 37 were political activists executed en masse on 23 April 2019 following lengthy periods of detention in solitary confinement, subjection to torture, and grossly unfair trials. 33 of the 37 were members of Saudi’s Shia minority, who were arrested and ultimately executed for their participation in protests in the country’s Eastern Province.

Saudi’s current practices are in violation of international standards, including the Arab Charter on Human Rights, ratified by Saudi. The Charter requires countries that retain the death penalty to use it only for the “most serious crimes” in exceptional circumstances, and following a judgment by a competent court. Saudi has one of the highest execution rates in the world and applies the death penalty to a range of offenses that do not meet this requirement such as drug related offenses. Despite urges from the international community, such as the 2018 United Nations General Assembly’s call for countries to establish a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, and to reduce the offenses for which it might be imposed with the intention of eventual abolition, Saudi continues to employ the death penalty.

2019 displays a distrurbing pattern of executing individuals identified as political dissidents. Many were charged with ill-defined crimes such as “sorcery”, “espionage”, and “terrorism”, all of which are vague terms that allow for sweeping interpretations. Michael Page, deputy director for the Middle East with Human Rights Watch, has stated that “Saudi authorities will inevitably characterize those executed as terrorists and dangerous criminals, but the reality is that Saudi courts are largely devoid of any due process and many of those executed were condemned based solely on confessions they credibly say were coerced…[as such the] death penalty is never the answer to crimes and executing prisoners en masse shows that the current Saudi leadership has little interest in improving the country’s dismal human rights record.”

Lynn Maalouf, the Director of Research for the Middle East with Amnesty International, has stated that “the Saudi Arabian authorities have a chilling track record of using the death penalty as a weapon to crush political dissent and punish anti-government protesters – including children.” For example, Murtaja Qureiris, a Saudi member of the Shia minority, was accused by the Saudi government of “joining a terror group” and “sowing sedition.” Qureiris was arrested in September 2014 when he was just 13 years old.

Similarly facing execution in Saudi Arabia is Ali al-Nimr who, on 20 December 2019, celebrated his 25th birthday on death row. He has spent eight previous birthdays in prison after his arrest in February 2012 for participating in a democracy rally in Saudi Eastern Province. According to reports from ADHRB and other international human right organizations, after his arrest, al-Nimr was interrogated and tortured by officers of Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Directorate, during which a confession was signed despite his denied access to an attorney. He was charged with twelve offenses, including treason and membership with a terrorist cell, and consequently received a death sentence from the Specialized Criminal Court, the kingdom’s national security court system responsible for trying terrorism cases. Like Qureiris, al-Nimr was a child when he was arrested. As such, his detention and sentencing has been the subject of multiple communications from the United Nations Special Procedures Office, including instances in May 2015, September 2015, March 2016, August 2016, July 2017, and October 2018. As reported by ADHRB, his detention was also declared arbitrary and unlawful by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

Religiosity of the Royal Family’s Political Control and Suppression of Shia Opposition

The Saudi monarchy maintains absolute control over the state’s political processes, control deeply entrenched in a historical intertwinement of state and religion. The Al-Saud family maintains a symbiotic relationship with the Wahhabi religious establishment, giving religious legitimacy to the family’s political rule and ensuring the codification of the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam in Saudi state bureaucracy.

The Saudi family’s religious legitimacy vis-a-vis its relationship with the Sunni Wahhabi establishment gives the regime significant authority over its population, of which over 80% are Sunni. Much of the political opposition in the country springs from the Shia minority, making the regime’s sectarian religious repression inherently political.

Anti-Shia discrimination in the religious and cultural spheres “manifests in the destruction of significant Shia religious and cultural sites, the closure of Shia mosques, the arrest and detention of Shia religious leaders and worshippers, and the government-sponsored and government-sanctioned disruption of Shia religious practices and festivals. This discrimination also takes a less tangible form in the use of sectarian and anti-Shia language in sermons and school textbooks that demean and degrade Shia and their practices and heritage.” These efforts serve to ostracize the Shia population as unequal and illegitimate members of Saudi society, sowing the seeds for discontent and further dissent. This has led the Al-Saud family to take more drastic measures regarding political opposition within Shia communities.

The 2005 and 2011 elections in Saudi Arabia epitomize the religiosity of political opposition in the country. 1.08 million Saudi men turned out to vote in 2005, which is a significantly low figure in context of the total 18 million eligible voters. However, the Shia Eastern Provinces saw an increased voter turnout. “The high voter turnout rate among Eastern Province Shia was propelled by the sense that, after years of marginalization and neglect, Shia citizens could have their voices heard.” ADHRB’s report found that like the 2005 elections, in the 2011 elections “only half of the seats were contestable. The king appointed the other half of the seats. Shia candidates won the majority of seats in Qatif, and the king appointed four Sunnis and one Shia to the Qatif council.” This reveals a deliberate form of gerrymandering by the Al-Saud family in order to maintain its possession of power.

The Shame Campaign of Whitewash PR led by Vision 2030 and Sporting and Musical Events in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 looks to modernize and diversify the country’s economy away from its reliance on fossil fuels. However, to do this the country must use positive branding to divert attention away from its gross human rights violations. As explored in previous sections, the Al-Saud regime retains a tight control on all aspects of society, quelling any signs of resistance in its population, and even going to extremes such as the murder of Jamal Khashoggi on Turkish soil. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Saudi is trying to cleanse its reputation by employing ‘whitewashing’ and ‘sportswashing’ in an attempt to project a progressive face of the kingdom internationally.

This mode of global branding can be incredibly useful, as many tend to begin associating the country with the events it hosts rather than the rights it abuses. In January 2020, more than a dozen women drivers will take part in the Dakar Rally. However, the kingdom has cracked down on many of the women’s rights activists who have been campaigning for their ability to drive in Saudi, including al-Hathloul mentioned in Section 1 above. In a twist of dark irony, the Dakar Rally highlights that “Saudi women’s rights activists who fought for and won the right to drive in Saudi Arabia remain banned from travel, on trial or behind bars.”

The use of “influencer-washing” is of further significance, which is the use of foreign influencers brought in to the kingdom for large music and fashion events. They are then encouraged to post their positive experiences on their social media accounts. This has been met with widespread criticism from their audiences, who have expressed their concerns regarding “influencers” being out of touch with the issues going on within the countries that they are promoting.