Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s office is publicly voicing concern about another jailed female civil-rights activist in Saudi Arabia, continuing the Canadian government’s criticism of the kingdom’s human-rights record despite political and economic retaliation Riyadh inflicted on Canada earlier this month.
Human-rights advocates this week are sounding the alarm about Israa al-Ghomgham and five other activists from Saudi Arabia’s troubled Eastern Province. Human Rights Watch says the activists are being tried by the country’s terrorism tribunal on charges “solely related to their peaceful activism” and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for nearly all of them, including Ms. al-Ghomgham.
Saudi activists told Human Rights Watch that Ms. al-Ghomgham would be the first female activist to face the death penalty for her human rights-related work, which sets a dangerous precedent for other women activists currently behind bars.
Asked for comment on Ms. al-Ghomgham’s treatment, Ms. Freeland’s office released a statement saying Canada is worried about the Saudi woman’s case.
“As Minister Freeland has previously stated, Canada is extremely concerned by the arrests of women’s rights activists,” spokesman Adam Austen said. “These concerns have been raised with the Saudi government. Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, including women’s rights and freedom of expression around the world.”
The Canadian government, however, did not call on Saudi Arabia to “immediately release” Ms. al-Ghomgham, unlike earlier this month when the Department of Global Affairs used this phrase in calling on the kingdom to free a number of women activists. The Saudi government specifically cited “immediate release” as a reason for its anger when it began scaling back and cutting diplomatic and economic ties with Canada for this criticism earlier this month.
Since Aug. 6, Saudi Arabia has expelled Canada’s ambassador; froze new trade and investment in this country; began withdrawing 16,000 Riyadh-funded Saudi students as well as medical patients from Canada; suspended Saudi Arabian Airlines flights to Toronto; and stopped buying barley and wheat from Canada. The Saudis have also reportedly instructed their central bank and state pension funds to sell off Canadian assets.
The Saudi government could not immediately be reached for comment on Ms. Freeland’s statement regarding Ms. al-Ghomgham’s case.
Last year, 146 people were executed in Saudi Arabia, according to Amnesty International. Beheading is the most common method of capital punishment in Saudi Arabia.
Ms. al-Ghomgham and the other activists are accused by the kingdom of “participating in protests” in the Eastern Province’s al-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,” Human Rights Watch said.
“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,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “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.”
Omar Allam, a former Canadian diplomat who advises global companies looking to do business in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, said he believes Canada is not accomplishing anything by publicly criticizing the kingdom.
“Canada and Western nations have a vested interest in the success of Saudi Arabia’s attempt to transform itself,” Mr. Allam said. “This is an opportunity for Canada to address serious issues with tact and diplomacy. Right now we are striking aimlessly and it’s doubtful we are being heard or respected.”
Ms. al-Ghomgham is a Shia Muslim – a minority in Saudi Arabia – who has participated in and documented mass demonstrations in the Eastern Province that began in early 2011, calling for an end to the systematic discrimination that Saudi Shia citizens face in the majority-Sunni country, Human Rights Watch says.
Authorities have held her and the other activists in pretrial detention and without legal representation for more than two years. Their next court date is scheduled for Oct. 28. There have been no verdicts in their cases yet. Ms. al-Ghomgham is 28 years old, according to Taha al-Hajji, a human-rights lawyer based in Germany. Saudi court documents say Ms. al-Ghomgham documented and spread word of demonstrations through Facebook and YouTube using aliases.
Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court, set up in 2008 to try terrorism cases, has since been increasingly used to prosecute dissidents. The court is “notorious for its violations of fair trial standards and has previously sentenced other Shia activists to death on politically motivated charges,” Human Rights Watch says.
At least 13 women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia have been arrested recently under what critics describe as a pretext of national security. While some have since been released, others remain detained without charge including Samar Badawi, sister of jailed Saudi writer Raif Badawi. Mr. Badawi’s wife and three children were granted asylum in Canada and obtained Canadian citizenship this year.
It was Samar Badawi whom Ms. Freeland and her department cited in statements on Twitter earlier this month calling for the release of activists in Saudi Arabia.