Saudi women’s rights activists mark 100 days of detention
Advocates staged protests across the globe on Thursday, including in front of the Saudi Arabian embassy in London, to protest the kingdom’s continued detention of three prominent human right activists. August 23 was selected because it marks a troubling milestone on the issue, namely the 100thday that women’s rights activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan, and Aziza al-Yousef have been held without charge or legal representation.
“This must not go on any longer,” said Amnesty International’s Middle East director of campaigns, Samah Hadid, in a statement. “The world cannot carry on looking the other way as this relentless persecution of those who stand up for human rights in Saudi Arabia continues.”
The three detained women have long played a visible role in feminist activism in Saudi Arabia, including fighting to end the kingdom’s (now defunct) restriction on women driving and highly restrictive guardianship laws. They’ve also all previously come under the scrutiny of state authorities. In 2013, al-Yousef was arrested with al-Nafjan after they drove illegally through Riyadh by themselves. Al-Hathloul was similarly arrested and detained for 73 days in 2014, after she attempted to drive her car across the border from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia. All three women were re-arrested by government authorities in May, and at least nine other activists have been detained since then.
Both the protests—and the continued detention of activists—comes amid a bid by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to change the country’s public profile and diversify its economy. In April, the kingdom opened its first movie theater in more than 35 years. In June, under bin Salman’s leadership, the controversial ban on women driving was lifted. Western news outlets largely praised the development: “Saudi women driving ban finally lifts in landmark today,” exclaimed CNN. “A moment to savor: a Saudi woman rejoices as driving ban ends,” wrote The New York Times.
Some human rights activists, however, have described bin Salman’s reform efforts as a “PR exercise,” one that has met with some success in rebranding the kingdom’s image across the globe.
Regardless of a few recent advances, Saudi Arabia continues to have a demonstrably poor human rights record. In August, the Canadian ambassador was expelled after the country expressed public concern over the arrest of human rights activists including gender justice advocate Samar Badawi. And on Tuesday, news broke that Saudi Arabian prosecutors were seeking the death penalty for five human rights activists, including one woman—Israa al-Ghomgham—who advocated on behalf of the kingdom’s Shia minority.
Al-Ghomgham is set to be tried in the country’s counterterrorism court. Amnesty International believes that the three women detained for 100 days will also be tried there. Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director, condemned al-Ghomgham’s potential punishment in a statement on Tuesday.
“Any execution is appalling,” said Whitson, “but seeking the death penalty for activists like Israa al-Ghomgham, who are not even accused of violent behavior, is monstrous.”
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