Saudi Arabia: Four women’s rights defenders released while another prominent human rights defender arrested in ongoing crackdown
One of Saudi Arabia's most well-known human rights defenders, Mohammed Al-Bajadi, a founding member of the Civil and Political Rights Association in Saudi Arabia (ACPRA), was arrested in Buraidah on 24 May 2018 during the ongoing crackdown on human rights defenders, including some of the most well-known women’s rights defenders that began on 15 May 2018. At least 12 human rights defenders had been reported arrested before this latest arrest, with four women’s rights defenders subsequently released over the past week.
Others previously arrested include leaders and supporters of the #Right2Drive and #IAmMyOwnGuardian campaigns who dared to speak openly about human rights violations in the country and are critical of the discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia. Women’s rights defender Loujain Al-Hathloul remains incommunicado in Jeddah since her arrest on 17 May. State media have publicly declared Al-Hathloul and six other women’s rights activists as traitors, including Dr. Eman Al-Nafjan, founder and author of the Saudiwoman's Weblog, who has previously protested the driving ban;Aziza Al-Yousef, a prominent campaigner for women’s rights; and Dr. Ibrahim Al-Modaimegh, a human rights defender, in addition to writer Mohammad Al-Rabea, businessman and a board member of a women’s NGO Abdulaziz Al-Mesha'al, and an unnamed man. They have also announced the arrest of Ibrahim Fahad Al-Nafjan.
Four women, Dr. Aisha Al-Manae, Dr. Hessa Al-Sheikh, Dr. Madeha Al-Ajroush, and Walaa Al-Shubbar, were arrested but since released. They took part in the first women’s protest movement for the right to drive in 1990. On 23 May, Dr. Al-Manae was released from custody, possibly due to illness. Two days later, the other three women’s rights defenders were also released.
On 19 May 2018, the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) publicly acknowledged the arrest of seven of the activists (naming six of them) and accused them of treason and conspiracy against the country, stating that they are being charged with “organising for trespassing the country’s religious and national foundations, suspicious communication with foreign entities recruiting people working in government positions, funding hostile groups abroad to undermine Saudi national security, stability, social peace and to destroy the social cohesion.” Shortly after the official and semi-official media outlets started naming and shaming the detained human rights defenders on their front pages and social media accounts calling them “traitors” and “embassy’s agents”. They may face up to 20 years in prison, according to Saudi Arabia’s “Okaz” newspaper.
A Royal decree was issued in 2017 announcing that women would be allowed to drive as of 24 June 2018, offering the illusion that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was a progressive reformer. However, following the announcement, women’s rights activists were specifically warned by the royal court to remain silent and told not to give media interviews or post on social media. Some of those arrested had ignored this advice.
The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) urges the Saudi government to:
- Release all the detained human rights defenders immediately and unconditionally;
- Immediately reveal the whereabouts of Loujain Al-Hathloul and allow her to have access to her family and lawyer;
- Guarantee the physical and psychological safety and integrity of the detained human rights defenders for as long as they remain in detention;
- Stop targeting campaigners for women's right to drive, and against the guardianship system, among other women’s rights;
- Allow women to exercise their rights freely without any judicial harassment or other reprisals; and
- Guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders including women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals.