A female activist is facing the death penalty in Saudi Arabia for participating in and documenting anti-government protests, human rights groups said on Wednesday. If convicted, she could become the first female activist ever beheaded in the ultraconservative kingdom.
Israa al-Ghomgham and her husband are two of five Shia activists facing execution over charges relating to their involvement in protests calling for more rights for about two million Shia Muslims in the kingdom’s Eastern Province, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International. A sixth co-defendant is standing trial but is not facing the death penalty
Saudi Arabia is a predominantly Sunni Muslim kingdom.
The charges against the group range from joining a terror group affiliated with an enemy state to participating in a protest and posting footage of it online, Germany-based Saudi activist Ali Adubisi told CNN.
But according to a statement from HRW, the charges “don’t resemble recognizable crimes” and are “solely related to their peaceful activism.”
The prosecutor called for the death penalty for al-Ghomgham, her husband and three other men during a court hearing earlier this month, according to Adubisi. It was the activists’ first time in court following more than two years in detention in a Saudi prison.
The same Specialized Criminal Court, which handles terrorism cases, sentenced firebrand Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr and seven other men to death for their role in Shia protests in the same province. Al-Nimr and at least three other Shia men were executed in January 2016.
Saudi authorities have so far not responded to a CNN request for comment.
“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 Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW, said in a statement.
Reforms and crackdowns
Saudi Arabia, which adheres to some of the strictest interpretations of Sunni Islam in the world, has long faced criticism for laws that discriminate against women.
Over the past two years, the kingdom – under the guidance of 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – has implemented a mixed bag of social reforms, opening its first cinema in decades and loosening several morality laws, including notorious rules requiring that women receive a male guardian’s permission to travel, receive an education and sometimes work and receive health care.
In June, the country ended its ban on female drivers following decades of activism from both inside and outside the Gulf nation. But in recent months, the government also arrested a number of high-profile women who had campaigned to overturn the driving ban, casting doubt on the sincerity of the Crown Prince’s much-touted reforms.
While some have since been released, a handful of the women remain detained without charge, according to HRW.
CNN’s Tamara Qiblawi reported from Beirut, Sarah El Sirgany reported from Abu Dhabi and Sheena McKenzie wrote in London. Laura Smith-Spark contributed to this report.