On 10 February 2021, the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) in Riyadh sentenced six activists, including human rights activist Israa al-Ghomgham, to lengthy prison terms on charges relating to their peaceful civil activities.
The court, whose remit is to handle terrorism cases, sentenced al-Ghomgham to eight years, her husband Mousa al-Hashim to 17 years, Ahmed al-Matrood to 15 years, Khaled al-Ghanim to 13 years, Ali al-Ouwaisher to 10 years, and Mujtaba al-Muzain to eight years. The rulings are preliminary and can be appealed.
Earlier, the Public Prosecutor had called for the death penalty for al-Ghomgham and four of the others, marking the first time that a woman in Saudi Arabia had faced the possibility of execution on charges relating to her activism.
Al-Ghomgham and her husband were arrested in December 2015 after they took part in peaceful protests in Qatif, in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. After more than two years in pre-trial detention at al-Mabaheth prison in Dammam they were charged under Article 6 of the Anti-Cybercrime Law in connection with social media activity, as well as other charges related to the protests.
The SCC, like Saudi Arabia’s regular criminal courts, is well known for its disregard of legal safeguards, and has shown itself to lack any independence, proceeding with unfair trials and invoking repressive legislation against activists and reformers in line with the authorities' attempt to stifle free speech.
At a hearing in the SCC on 6 August 2018, the Public Prosecutor called for the death penalty against five of the activists, including al-Ghomgham, on the basis of ta’zir (the judge’s discretion to pass sentence as he saw fit). However, on 31 January 2019, in response to international pressure, the Saudi authorities announced that al-Ghomgham would not face the death penalty, while the other four remained at risk of execution.
Given the time she has already spent in detention, al-Ghomgham is now expected to be released in 2023.
In recent weeks the Saudi authorities have conditionally released a number of prisoners of conscience, including writers Salah al-Haidar and Bader al-Ibrahim, and women human rights defenders (WHRDs) Loujain al-Hathloul and Nouf Abdelaziz, who remain under heavy restrictions. Meanwhile, many prisoners of conscience continue to be unjustly detained.
ALQST’s Executive Director Alaa al-Siddiq commented: “The fact that these activists have been sentenced to such harsh prison sentences, simply for participating in peaceful demonstrations, is shocking, but not surprising. If the Saudi authorities have any intention of genuine human rights reform, they must ensure that individuals are not imprisoned on the basis of their activism.”
ALQST calls for pressure on the Saudi authorities to release the six activists, drop the charges against them, and investigate the violations of their rights while in detention. ALQST also reiterates its call for the unconditional release of all those detained for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression, association or assembly.