Saudi Arabia: Women human rights defenders temporarily freed, while others remain in prison


Update: Recent reports confirmed that at least four WHRDs including Hatoon Al-Fassi, Amal Al-Harbi, Maysaa al-Manea, and Abeer Namankani were temporarily released, while the release of Shadan al-Anezi remains unconfirmed.


The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) welcomes the news that two women’s rights defenders have been freed after over 10 months in detention in Saudi Arabia, but reiterates that they should never have been arrested. According to various reports, more women’s rights defenders arrested last year will be released on 31 March. There are currently at least 13 other women’s rights defenders (women and men) who were arrested as part of a crackdown on women’s rights activists that began in May 2018. Many of the women alleged they were tortured and abused in detention.

On 28 March 2019, long-time women’s rights campaigner and academic Aziza Al-Youssef and Eman Al-Nafjan, who blogs on women’s rights, were both freed temporarily. Dr. Rokaya Mohareb, an academic who was arrested during the crackdown on Islamic figures in September 2017 was also freed.

The women are among 11 defendants brought to trial on charges of communicating with foreign parties before the Criminal Court in Riyadh starting on 13 March. The other women human rights defenders on trial are Loujain Al-Hathloul, Amal Al-Harbi, Hatoon Al-Fassi, Shadan Al-Onezi, Miyya Al-Zahrani, Abeer Namankani, and Nouf Abdelaziz. Another unidentified woman is also on trial. They are being tried separately but on similar charges.

All 11 women were brought by the security forces to the second trial session on 27 March which was presided over by a three-judge panel. In this session, the women testified that they were tortured by masked men with electric shocks and sexually harassed during the investigation of their cases. Foreign reporters and diplomats were not allowed in court, but the women reportedly had their family members with them. The judge ordered the defendants to respond to the indictment against them within two weeks, even though they only heard the charges in court on 13 March.

They found out that confessions signed during interrogation would be used against them. Al-Hathloul, who requested bail this week, told her family that she was brutally tortured by interrogators under the supervision of the former adviser at the Royal Court, Saud Al-Qahtani. Walid Al-Hathloul tweeted: "The top adviser of the Crown Prince (...) was threatening to rape my sister, kill her, cut her body into pieces (...) He's the one who should be in court today not my sister."

The General Prosecution has directed the following charges against the 11 defendants:

  1. Communicating with people and entities hostile to the King.
  2. Cooperating with journalists and media institutions hostile to the King.
  3. Providing financial support to foreign adversaries.
  4. Recruiting persons for information detrimental to the security of the Kingdom.

During the first hearing on 13 March, the women were not allowed to defend themselves nor to be represented by a lawyer, but they were given the right to lawyers at the subsequent hearing. The next hearing is expected to be the final hearing in the case.

Other women’s rights defenders who were arrested last year during the roundup but have not yet been brought to trial include Samar Badawi, Nassima Al-Sadah and Mohammed Al-Bajadi.

While welcoming the release of Al-Youssef and Al-Nafjan, GCHR deplores in the strongest terms this mock trial, which lacks all fair trial standards and due process for women human rights defenders who have worked peacefully in the defense of women’s rights in their country, and calls on the international community to intervene immediately to stop this farce, and to ensure all human rights defenders are freed immediately and unconditionally.

GCHR calls on the international community, in particular the UN and its member states, to:

  1. Call a Special Session of the Human Rights Council on the recent wave of arrests and attacks against human rights defenders and other dissenting voices in Saudi Arabia;
  2. Issue a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council calling for all human rights defenders to be freed, and for Saudi Arabia to be held accountable for the torture and abuse of women human rights defenders in prison;
  3. Take action at the UN General Assembly to suspend Saudi Arabia’s membership of the Human Rights Council; and
  4. Urge the government of Saudi Arabia to implement the below recommendations.

GCHR call on the authorities in Saudi Arabia to:

  1. Immediately quash the convictions of all human rights defenders, including women and men advocating for gender equality, and drop all charges against them;
  2. Immediately and unconditionally release all human rights defenders, writers, journalists and prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia whose detention is a result of their peaceful and legitimate work in the promotion and protection of human rights including women’s rights;
  3. Ensure that an independent investigation into the torture and abuse of women prisoners is carried out by impartial, international bodies such as the UN, and hold those accused of torture accountable in court;
  4. Guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders and journalists in Saudi Arabia are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities and public interest reporting without fear of reprisal; and
  5. Ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and bring all national laws limiting the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association into compliance with international human rights standards.