This 29-year-old female activist is facing execution in Saudi Arabia

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Moya Crockett
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Here’s how to join the UK protest against Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women activists.

Over the last year or so, Saudi Arabia has been cautiously praised for improving its approach to women’s rights. The ultra-conservative Middle Eastern nation has long been seen as an example of a country where women’s freedoms are truly repressed, but since last June – when the elderly King Salman appointed his son Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud as Crown Prince and First Deputy Prime Minister – there have been glimmers of change. Bin Salman has been widely characterised as a moderate and a reformist, and under his leadership Saudi women have acquired the right to drive, been allowed to enter sports stadiums for the first time, and joined the workforce in increasing numbers.

However, at the same time as these changes were introduced, the Saudi government also cracked down on political dissent, arresting and imprisoning many women’s rights and human rights activists – including several women who had campaigned for the right to drive. This contradiction caused many onlookers and human rights experts to doubt whether the new reforms really had women’s best interests at heart.

Now, it has been revealed that the country’s public prosecutor is seeking the death penalty for a woman political activist for the first time. According to Human Rights Watch, 29-year-old Israa al-Ghomgham is among five human rights activists currently on trial in a terrorism court in Riyadh, on charges including incitement to protest and providing moral support to rioters. 

Crown Price Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud has introduced some reforms, but his father’s government still does not tolerate political dissent 

The Independent reports that al-Ghomgham was arrested with her husband in December 2015 for their roles in organising anti-government protests in the wake of the Arab Spring. Public protests and political parties are banned in Saudi Arabia, which is ruled by the monarchy.

Almost three years after her original arrest, Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor has now recommended that she and the other defendants face beheading. A final hearing will be held on 28 October, where the recommendation will be upheld or overturned. If it is upheld, it will go to King Salman for final approval, after which the beheading would be carried out.

Sarah Leah Whitson is the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Any execution is appalling, but seeking the death penalty for activists like Israa al-Ghomgham, who are not even accused of violent behaviour, is monstrous,” she said in a statement on Wednesday.

“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.”

Women practice driving in Jeddah after gaining the right to drive, June 2018 

Al-Ghomgham is not the only woman activist to currently be imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. Nine women’s rights activists are presently detained without charge in the country: Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan, Nouf Abdelaziz, Mayaa al-Zahrani, Hatoon al-Fassi, Samar Badawi, Nassema al-Sadah, and Amal al-Harbi.

Shortly before the ban on women drivers was lifted, Amnesty International’s Middle East director of campaigns told Stylist that there was a contradiction in how the Saudi government wanted to appear to the world and how it treats political activists. 

“On the one hand, the authorities are enabling freedoms for women, but on the other, they’re imprisoning women’s rights activists,” said Samah Hadid.

“The message the government is sending out is they will not tolerate dissent or any form of activism. They will not tolerate human rights being campaigned for in the country – which is in direct contradiction to the PR campaign they’ve launched where they’ve tried to promote themselves as reformers. Instead they’re imprisoning reformers.”

Amnesty International is staging a protest in solidarity with imprisoned Saudi women’s rights activists outside the Saudi Embassy in London from 8am on Thursday 23 August. Female drivers will beep their horns and bringing traffic to a standstill, and call on the UK government to publicly condemn the arrests of the women who campaigned for the right to drive.

“Saudi Arabia’s so-called reforms are a sham – the UK Government must be bold in showing solidarity with brave women standing up for human rights by publicly condemning their arrest and calling for their release,” said Sara Rydkvist, Amnesty UK’s campaigns manager.

“The relentless crackdown on human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia will not be met with silence. The Saudi Embassy will hear us loud and clear demanding the release of these brave women and the many other activists in the country who have dared to speak up for their rights.”

Find out more about the demonstration here

Images: Unsplash / Getty Images