The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Saudi Arabia’s barbaric price for protest

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visits United Nations headquarters in New York in March. (Amir Levy/Reuters)

SAUDI ARABIA’S glossy blueprint for modernization, Vision 2030, pledges that the regime will “listen to citizens’ views, and to hear all insights and perspectives,” and wants “to give everyone the opportunity to have their say.”

The truth is not so pretty. Speaking out in Saudi Arabia can lead to death by beheading.

Case in point: Israa al-Ghomgham, a 29-year-old Shiite rights activist who was arrested, along with her husband, Moussa al-Hashem, in December 2015 and has been in pretrial detention ever since without legal representation. She had been a leader of anti-government protests in restive Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia since the Arab Spring of 2011, calling for an end to discrimination against Shiites and for the release of political prisoners. Saudi Arabia is majority Sunni Muslim, as is the monarchy.

Ms. Ghomgham’s transgressions were “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,” according to Human Rights Watch. Saudi Arabia’s rulers are intolerant of dissent and punish it harshly, with imprisonment and public lashings. On Aug. 6, a prosecutor asked for the death penalty for Ms. Ghomgham, her husband and four others. If carried out, she would be the first woman beheaded in Saudi Arabia for nonviolent protest, although the punishment is used often for violent crimes. The prosecutor’s request was made before the Specialized Criminal Court, a counterterrorism tribunal that is increasingly being used as a bludgeon against dissent. A judge is due to consider the death-penalty request Oct. 28; if upheld, it would be reviewed by the king before being carried out.

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Beheading a rights activist for nonviolent protest is barbaric, whether the victim is a woman or a man. Saudi Arabia recently bristled at criticism of its dismal human rights record by Canada, claiming interference in its internal affairs. But it is impossible to look the other way at such medieval practices, or should be. It would be heartening if the United States, the world’s most powerful democracy, could muster a stronger voice against the abuses.

The kingdom has been engaged in a sustained crackdown on dissent and protest. Saudi authorities imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi for suggesting the kingdom needed moderation and his sister Samar Badawi for advocating on behalf of human rights. Was their advocacy really that dangerous? Vision 2030, the blueprint of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, pledges that the “values of moderation, tolerance” will be “the bedrock of our success.” The document says Saudi Arabia’s principles include “being conscientious of human rights.” Perhaps the king and crown prince ought to read their own brochures and take them to heart. As it is, they behave as despots from a darker era.

Read more:

The Post’s View: The Saudi crown prince is throwing women in jail for speaking up

The Post’s View: Saudi Arabia takes a wrong turn on women’s freedom

Khalid bin Salman: Saudi Arabia embraces change — and the United States can help

Anne Applebaum: Trump is part of the Saudi story

David Ignatius: The crown prince of Saudi Arabia is giving his country shock therapy