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Saudi Arabia seeking first death penalty for female activist, rights groups say

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the 29th Arab League Summit on April 15 in Dhahran. (Bandar al-Jaloud/Saudi Royal Palace/AFP)

Prosecutors in Saudi Arabia are seeking the death penalty for five activists in the country’s Eastern Province, according to Saudi activists and Human Rights Watch. Among those being targeted is Israa al-Ghomgham, who Saudi groups say would be the first female human rights activist to be put to death in the Saudi kingdom if the execution proceeds.

“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,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “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.”

Human Rights Watch says Ghomgham is among five activists for whom Saudi Arabia’s Public Prosecution office is seeking the death penalty. They are being tried in the country’s terrorism tribunal for what their supporters say was peaceful activism.

The Berlin-based European Saudi Organization for Human Rights highlighted Ghomgham’s case in emails earlier this week, calling it a “precedent” and saying the Saudi prosecution was seeking the activist’s beheading. Last week, the organization released a statement that suggested 51 people were awaiting execution in the country.

Ghomgham and five other activists are facing trial in connection with demonstrations in the Shiite-populated parts of Eastern Province that began in 2011. The demonstrations were held to protest the discrimination Shiite Muslim citizens face in the predominantly Sunni Muslim kingdom. According to Human Rights Watch, Ghomgham and her husband were arrested on Dec. 6, 2015, and have been held in prison ever since.

Prosecutors were seeking the death penalty against five of the six suspects, according to an indictment obtained by The Washington Post. The allegations against Ghomgham included participating in protests and “provoking” young people to do the same; inciting what the authorities called a “soft revolution;” and traveling to Iran, where prosecutors said she received “theoretical lessons on how to create chaos.” The Saudi government did not immediately respond to questions about her case.

Apart from the cases related to protests in the Shiite-majority areas of Eastern Province, the Saudi government faces growing condemnation for a crackdown on dissidents, including women’s rights advocates. Among the women recently arrested was Nassima al-Sadah, a Shiite Muslim from the eastern city of Qatif, who had tried unsuccessfully to run for local elections there and had sued to lift the kingdom’s long-standing ban on female drivers.

According to Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia uses the death penalty more than almost any other country in the world, with 146 executions reportedly carried out last year. Only China and Iran were thought to have executed more people in 2017.

Saudi Arabia ordered Aug. 6 the suspension of trade with Canada, after the country's foreign minister urged Riyadh to release detained civil rights activists. (Video: Reuters)

Under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has sought to bolster its international image with splashy business events and diplomatic outreach. However, the country has bristled at criticism of its handling of human rights, resulting in a diplomatic spat with Canada earlier this month after the country’s foreign minister tweeted a message in Arabic that expressed alarm over the detention of a women’s rights activist who had relatives in Canada.

Asked about Ghomgham’s trial on Tuesday, the office of Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland told the Globe and Mail newspaper that “Canada is extremely concerned by the arrests of women’s rights activists” and that these concerns have been raised with the Saudi government.

Kareem Fahim and Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul contributed to this story.

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