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Stories Of Executions Undermine Saudi Push To Modernity
Muslim pilgrims perform a farewell circumambulation at the Kaaba in Mecca in August 2018 to complete their hajj. (Mustafa Ciftci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Stories Of Executions Undermine Saudi Push To Modernity

Reports that detained activists will likely face the death penalty come after the Saudi government’s crackdown on women’s rights activists under the pretext of ‘maintaining national security’ 

Responding to reports that Saudi Arabia’s Public Prosecution is seeking the death penalty against five human-rights activists, a Saudi political analyst has told The Media Line that no information had been released from the authorities and that “all information is fragmentary, politicized and propagated by media or hostile sources that have fallen into the trap.”

Sulaiman al-Oquily explained that many media outlets, as well as human rights organizations, believed the “propaganda” that was created regarding the arrest of the activists, who include Shia Muslim Israa al-Ghomgham from the kingdom’s Eastern province.

“The attorney-general has the right to request the maximum sentence by law,” he said, emphasizing that at trial the judge would rule according to evidence.

The death penalty reports come after a recent crackdown on women’s rights activists in the kingdom which has led to the arrest of at least 13 women under the pretext of “maintaining national security.”

Authorities in the ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim nation have accused several of them of “serious crimes,” including “participating in protests in the Qatif region,” “incitement to protest,” “chanting slogans hostile to the regime,” “attempting to inflame public opinion,” “filming protests and publishing on social media,” and “providing moral support to rioters.”

“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,” Middle East director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) Sarah Whitson stated in a report. “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,” she continued.

Saudi authorities have held all six activists in pretrial detention and without legal representation for over two years, HRW stated. Their next court date has been scheduled for October 28.

Al-Oquily claimed that activists like al-Ghomgham, who was arrested in 2015 during the “waves of terrorism,” endangered “the safety of Saudi civilians, including clerics who were opposed to terrorism,” which, he added, also targeted security personnel who were assigned to ensure stability.

“These operations were carried out by the so-called Hizbullah, which is sponsored by the external branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards headed by Qasim Soleimani,” who, he said, were causing the “collapse” of security in many Arab countries.

He was at pains to differentiate between the peaceful demonstrations of 2011 and what had taken place in Saudi Arabia between 2015 and 2017, which he said were “all violent activities, from live ammunition to bombing.”

Al-Oquily pointed out that the call for the execution of the women activists was based on an Islamic law principle of “ta’zir,” in which the judge has discretion over the definition of what is considered a crime as well as over the sentence.

However, an imam based in the Middle East told the Media Line that “this has nothing to do with any religion; Islam is being used here for opportunistic reasons,” and maintained that in the case of the detained Saudi activists, “the religion has been employed to achieve certain ends.”

He added that seeking the death penalty against the activists conflicted with established international resolutions. In Saudi Arabia, executions are carried out by beheading.

Charlotte E. Allan, an activist and former legal advisor to United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) contends that the recent detention of the female activists highlights the “hypocrisy” of the Saudi state, “which tries to take credit for reform while locking up the women who made change possible.” She told The Media Line that by “locking up female activists it reveals a frightened and abusive administration stuck in the medieval era and scared of real reform.”

In the case of al-Ghomgham, Allan pointed out that she had campaigned for the women-to-drive movement, as well as provided training for the Al-Adalah Centre for Human Rights on UN human rights reporting mechanisms.

“She has a global profile as a courageous activist and also stood as a candidate in municipal elections in Saudi Arabia in 2015 but was later banned from participating,” she added.

Following the Canadian Embassy’s call for the immediate release of the detained women, Saudi Arabia announced the expulsion of Canada’s ambassador to Riyadh and recalled the kingdom’s envoy from Ottawa. All new trade and investment between the two countries has been suspended. The Saudi Foreign Ministry stated that “the Canadian position is a clear interference in the internal affairs of the kingdom and contrary to basic international norms. It’s an unacceptable transgression of the kingdom’s systems.”

Al-Oquily told The Media Line that the Saudi government was concerned that “any involvement in its internal affairs might affect the kingdom’s security and stability.” Recalling how Riyadh had dealt with previous instances of outside interference in its politics, he said that observers “would notice the same severity.”

In April, the U.S. State Department issued a report condemning human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, noting the continued and arbitrary arrests of civilian activists and the restrictions on freedom of expression. According to the report, the Saudi human rights violations also extended to executions without due process, torture and the detention of lawyers and jurists. The State Department also highlighted Saudi airstrikes in Yemen that killed many civilians in the battle between the Saudi-backed government and the Houthi rebels.

In contradiction to the suppression of women activists, recent reforms by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman have directly impacted the lives of the women in the kingdom. Changes range from granting Saudi women the right to an education and increasing their participation in the workforce to allowing them to travel locally and drive a vehicle without a male companion.

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