Saudi Arabia: Two more women human rights defenders arrested, as campaign continues against vocal supporters of women’s rights


Despite loud calls from the United Nations (UN) and the European Parliament (EP) to release all the Saudi human rights defenders detained in a recent crackdown that began on 15 May 2018, Saudi Arabia arrested two more women’s rights defenders over the past several days, bringing the number of those arrested close to 20. Other women’s rights defenders have been placed under travel ban.

First, on 06 June 2018, journalist and woman human rights defender Nouf Abdulaziz was arrested after a raid on her home, and taken to an unknown location where she has been held incommunicado. Abdulaziz writes for many publications and was a newspaper editor and a television producer. Her twitter profile (see above) shows three of the women already arrested in May 2018 - Loujain Al-Hathloul, a well-known women’s rights defender on social media; Dr. Eman Al-Nafjan, founder and author of the Saudiwoman's Weblog; and Aziza Al-Yousef, a prominent campaigner for women’s rights.

Following Abdulaziz’s arrest, woman human rights defender Mayya Al-Zahrani published a letter from Abdulaziz, who prepared something for publication in case she was arrested. Al-Zahrani was then arrested herself on 09 June 2018, for publishing the letter.

In the open letter, Abdulaziz writes: “Why is our homeland so small and tight, and why am I considered a criminal or an enemy that threatens it! I was never but a good citizen that loved her country and wished the best for it.” She continues to lament the situation, asking: “How does corruption reach people to take advantage of me to attain promotions and to fill their pockets with money on my account, to end my life and present and future for absurd ends that isn’t but corruption in a land, and to distort the image of my homeland to be an oppressive country without any critical thought or account to what they do, to whose benefit is all that is happening?” (See full letter in English and Arabic at

When she published the letter, saying "I can't stop my tears," Al-Zahrani commented on the arrest of Abdulaziz: "How the places in our homeland are getting narrow for us, and how we are chased for defending rights!" (See image above in Arabic)

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and its partners have documented the arrest of at least 17 other human rights defenders, many supporters of women’s rights campaigns. Nine of them are still detained and the two recent arrests brings the total of known detained human rights defenders and women’s rights activists to 11. According to media reports, there may be more detainees who have not been named. See the joint appeal signed by 35 NGOs at

Saudi Arabia’s Okaz newspaper reports an unnamed source saying they have been referred to the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC), and they could face between three and 20 years in prison if convicted. The SCC was set up to try terrorism cases, but has been misused.

Prior to the most recent two arrests, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering anti-terrorism Ben Emmerson strongly condemned the arrests. On 06 June 2018, Emmerson released a report following a five-day visit to Saudi Arabia in 2017, which concludes that the authorities are using anti-terror laws against human rights defenders. The report says: “Those who peacefully exercise their right to freedom of expression are systematically persecuted in Saudi Arabia… Many languish in prison for years. Others have been executed after blatant miscarriages of justice.” For the full report, see

“Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia is undergoing the most ruthless crackdown on political dissent that the country has experienced in decades,” Emmerson told “The Guardian”. “Just as the Kingdom is handing out the first driving licences for women, it is locking up the very people who campaigned for this modest reform.” He added: “Reports that Saudi Arabia is liberalising are completely wide of the mark.”

Saudi Arabia began issuing the first driving licences for women last week, ahead of the official end of the ban on women drivers on 24 June. As part of the widespread crackdown, GCHR has received information that at least 10 other women’s rights defenders and activists are banned from travel.

Emmerson also told said it was “a matter of shame for the UN that it allowed Saudi onto the UN human rights council (HRC)” in 2016.

On 31 May 2018, the European Parliament (EP) issued a resolution which “Condemns the ongoing repression of human rights defenders, including women’s rights defenders, in Saudi Arabia, which undermines the credibility of the reform process in the country; calls on the Government of Saudi Arabia to immediately and unconditionally release all human rights defenders and other prisoners of conscience detained and sentenced for merely exercising their right to freedom of expression and their peaceful human rights work;” and “denounces the continued, systemic discrimination against women and girls in Saudi Arabia.”

The EP also said it “Pays tribute to the Saudi women and women’s rights defenders seeking to defeat any unfair and discriminatory treatment and to those who have defended human rights despite the difficulties they have to face.”

GCHR continues to urge the Saudi authorities to:

  1. Release all persons detained solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly immediately and unconditionally, and drop all charges against them;
  2. Immediately reveal the whereabouts of Nouf Abdulaziz and Mayya Al-Zahrani, as well as Loujain Al-Hathloul, Eman Al-Nafjan, Aziza Al-Yousef, and other detained human rights defenders, and allow them immediate access to their families and lawyers of their choice;
  3. Guarantee in all circumstances the physical and psychological safety and integrity of all human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia;
  4. Immediately put an end to the harassment of women human rights defenders, including those who have been actively and bravely campaigning for women's rights, including by lifting travel bans against them;
  5. Allow all members of Saudi society including women to exercise their rights, including their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, without any judicial harassment or other reprisals; and
  6. Guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders, including women’s rights defenders, are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisal.