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Saudi woman activist may be given death sentence this weekend

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Ghomgam's death sentence is not likely be meted out until it is approved by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, above. (World Travel & Tourism Council)

A woman in Saudi Arabia who faces a possible death sentence for engaging in nonviolent human rights activism may receive the final word on her execution on Sunday, according to the online news outlet Middle East Eye. The fate of Israa al-Ghomgham, 29, comes as international outrage mounts over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggiat the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

“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,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, told Middle East Eye. “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.”

It’s believed that Ghomgham first came under intensive state scrutiny in 2011, when she played a lead role in organizing and documenting protests to demand equal rights for Saudi Arabia’s minority Shia citizens. Shia Muslims, who make up about 10 percent of the Saudi population, have long faced systemic discrimination in the country, according to a 2009 report by Human Rights Watch. The 2011 protests took place alongside a number of other uprisings across the region, during the pro-democracy movement known as the Arab Spring.

Ghomgham and her husband, Shia activist Moussa al-Hashem, were arrested during a night raid on their home on December 6,2015. Both of them have been behind bars ever since. She was tried in the kingdom’s Specialized Criminal Court (SCC). Although the SCC was set up in 2008 with the specific purpose of prosecuting terrorism offenses, it’s since became an institution through which the Saudi authorities can stifle dissent, including against Shia activistsHuman rights groups have been calling on the country to shutter the court for years.

Ghomgham is far from the only female political prisoner behind bars. Several women’s rights advocates were arrested in May, on the same day that the kingdom announced it would be lifting its longstanding prohibition on women driving, as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s much-trumpeted ‘reform’ campaign.But Shia activists appears to be the group Saudi authorities target most aggressively. 

“The majority of political prisoners currently on death row are Shia, while most of executions carried out in 2018 targeted Shia activists, according to rights groups,” according to Middle East Eye.

On Sunday, the judge overseeing Ghomgham’s trial may decide whether or not to uphold the death penalty recommendation previously issued by the country’s public prosecutor. If she were to be beheaded, the killing could likely not be meted out until it had been approved by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud.

“Ghomgham’s and her fellow activists’ cases illustrate that the crown prince’s much-touted reform plans have nothing to do with respect for basic and fundamental rights and freedoms,” wrote human rights advocate Ali Adubisi and writer Hana Al-Khamri in an op-ed published Tuesday by The Washington Post“The time has come to isolate Saudi Arabia and for there to be an end to the international immunity the Saudi regime enjoys.”

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