Saudi Arabia is seeking the death penalty for a 29-year-old human rights activist who took part in protests against the kingdom’s treatment of its Shia minority, activity the government says amounts to “terrorism.”
Israa al-Ghomgham is one of five Shia activists facing execution in connection with political demonstrations in the Qatif region of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, which is home to a high concentration of Shiites.
She was arrested with her husband in a night raid on their home in December 2015 and has been imprisoned ever since, according to Human Rights Watch.
Kingdom prosecutors are calling for al-Ghomgham’s execution based on the Islamic law principle of ta’zir, which permits a judge to determine what constitutes and crime and how it should be punished. They have charged al-Ghomgham and the other defendants with several supposed crimes including “incitement to protest,” “chanting slogans hostile to the regime,” “attempting to inflame public opinion,” and “filming protests and publishing on social media.”
The case is being tried in the kingdom’s Specialized Criminal Court, a tribunal established in 2008 for terrorism cases.
But the court has frequently been used to prosecute Saudi religious dissidents for non-violent political activity.
The special court sentenced prominent cleric Nimr al-Nimr and seven other Shia activists to death in 2014 for participating in the Arab spring protests. In 2016, it sentenced 14 more activists to death for similar reasons.
Executing al-Ghomgham for offenses “that do not resemble recognizable crimes” makes a mockery of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s highy publicized social reform campaign, Human Rights Watch says.
“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 Lee Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Tuesday.
“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.”
At Bin Salman’s direction, Saudi Arabia has moved to liberalize some of its famously restrictive social policies, including lifting a ban on female drivers and allowing movie theaters to open for the first time in more than 30 years.
But the kingdom still retains its medieval Islamic character in matters of criminal justice, executing hundreds of people each year for a range of crimes including murder, adultery and apostasy.
Saudi Arabia executed at least 146 people last year, according to Amnesty International.
The U.S., with a population roughly 10 times larger than Saudi Arabia, executed 23 people last year.
Most executions in the kingdom are by beheading. The method was used to execute 48 people in the first four months of this year.
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