The couple’s dreams for a better future were shattered in 2015, when the Saudi State Intelligence Service raided their home and arrested them. Since then they have spent years in arbitrary detention at a Dammam prison. In August of this year, the Public Prosecution Office finally gave them a non-public trial, alongside four activists, in the Specialized Criminal Court, which is notorious for trying political dissidents and activists as terrorism cases. The charges against Ghomgham and Hashem were based on their political chants, social media posts and involvement in demonstrations. None of the evidence suggested any participation in any violent acts. Yet the prosecutor demanded the death sentence for all of the detainees except one. Ghomgham thus became the first Saudi female activist to face the prospect of execution for acts of peaceful dissent. She faces her next hearing on Oct. 28, when the court may deliberate on her final sentencing.
To make matters worse, Saudi authorities summoned Israa’s father, Hassan al-Ghomgham, and charged him with “inciting the public against the state.” The father now risks being tried along the same lines as his daughter and son-in-law.
The brazen murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul is thus just one more depressing part of a much broader and worrying trend. Saudi local newspapers recently revealed that the Public Prosecution Office has increased the number of cases brought to the Specialized Criminal Court in 2018 by 182 percent over the previous year. The government, which has one of the highest execution rates in the world, has also been making widespread use of capital punishment (for both political and drug-related offenses). So far this year the authorities have already beheaded 93 people.
This reflects the hostile political climate and the policies of the country’s de facto ruler (and son of the king), Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is using draconian anti-terrorism laws to ruthlessly target human right activists and behead those who dare to oppose him.
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. These reforms are not meant to improve the justice system, promote the flourishing of civil society, or to build mechanisms for accountability.
The crown prince’s plans for reform aim above all to consolidate his own power. A look at the royal decrees issued since 2015 shows that the king and crown prince have appointed their own loyalists to top positions in the government, especially the security and the judiciary. Amid an escalating crackdown against political opponents, the king has issued rapid decisions in the past few years to appoint and promote hundreds of judges and members of the Public Prosecution Office. Last year, the government established a body ominously known as the Presidency of State Security, which is specifically designed to oversee the files of political prisoners.
The Saudi regime has pursued a two-track strategy to promote its aims: a charm offensive in the West as well as harsh reprisals against any country that dares criticize their human rights violations. (See the extraordinary retaliation against Canada after the government there issued a tweet critical of Riyadh.) The Khashoggi case has cast fresh light on this contradiction between the regime’s propaganda efforts overseas and the continuing war waged by the regime against human rights defenders inside the kingdom.
In retrospect, perhaps one of the biggest mistakes of the international community was allowing Saudi Arabia to participate in the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women despite the country’s horrific record on women’s rights. This may well have encouraged the regime to move so aggressively against Saudi feminists. Rewards without accountability invariably encourage the bad behavior of authoritarian regimes.
The time has come to isolate Saudi Arabia and for there to be an end to the international immunity the Saudi regime enjoys. There needs to be an immediate suspension of secret trials, death sentences and torture; the release of prisoners of conscience; and the opening of civil society space. Without this, the Saudi people will continue to be ruled by a regime that exercises absolute power and ignores human rights. The kingdom desperately needs an elected ruler who represents the people and complies with the values of democracy, freedom, justice and equality.