By Jamshed Baruah
GENEVA (IDN) – For the second time since July 31, UN human rights experts are calling on Saudi Arabia to “immediately and unconditionally” release all women human rights defenders, including six imprisoned on charges relating to their peaceful defence of human rights.
The detained have been charged for being involved in pro-democracy demonstrations, and previously campaigning for the right of women to vote and drive. In late June 2018, a long-standing ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia, was lifted by royal decree, UN News reports.
The group of nine independent experts – UN Special Rapporteurs and working group members – has condemned the actions of the Saudi authorities in continuing to detain the women rights defenders, “in the strongest possible terms,” calling for their “immediate and unconditional” release.
A group of those indicted – Samar Badawi, Nassima Al-Sadah, Nouf Abdulaziz, Mayya Al-Zahrani, and Hatoon Al-Fassi – are being held in detention, without any channels of communication. The five were particularly active in demonstrations for women’s rights.
In a statement on October 12, the experts urged Saudi authorities “to immediately make the whereabouts of these five human rights defenders known and to grant them access to their families and lawyers.”
The group of women also include Israa Al-Ghomghan, who faces possible execution despite being denied representation during her trial, and is being tried in Riyadh’s Specialized Criminal Court, an entity set up for terrorism-related cases.
“It is reprehensible that Ms. Al-Ghomagham is facing the death penalty for asserting her fundamental right to peaceful assembly,” the UN experts stressed.
They added that women rights defenders are subject to particular risks and vulnerable to widespread gender-based discrimination, signaling the Saudi administration’s duty to its people.
“We wish to remind the Saudi Government of its obligation to protect and promote the rights of all human rights defenders as they peacefully carry out their legitimate work,” said the experts.
Concerned over the continuing arrests and “apparently arbitrary detentions” of human rights defenders – including campaigners who lobbied for an end to the ban on women driving – the United Nations human rights office (OHCHR) on July 31, 2018 called on Saudi Arabia to “unconditionally” release all those being held.
Since May 15, at least 15 Government critics have been detained, Ravina Shamdasani, OHCHR Spokesperson told the media in Geneva.
“We understand that eight of them were later temporarily released until the completion of their procedural review,” Shamdasani said, noting that in some cases, “their whereabouts are unknown and there is a serious lack of transparency” in processing their cases.
In mid-May, a crackdown on prominent women’s rights defenders in Saudi Arabia seems to have kicked off a spate of arrests. In June, after an official visit, Ben Emmerson, UN special rapporteur on anti-terrorism, painted a damning picture of a country which he said was using anti-terror laws to systematically justify torture, suppress dissent and imprison human rights defenders.
“While the authorities have made statements about possible serious charges, that could lead to prison terms of up to 20 years, it is unclear whether charges have been laid in any of these cases,” Shamdasani continued.
Among those who reportedly remained imprisoned are Hatoon al-Fassi, a leading voice for women’s rights, and one of the first women to acquire a Saudi drivers’ license after the ban was lifted in late June.
“She was detained between June 21 and 24,” continued the spokesperson. Others in detention included human rights defender Khaled Al-Omair – who had not been contactable since he was imprisoned on July 6 – as well as women’s rights activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef, Nouf Abdelaziz and Mayaa al-Zahrani. 80-year old lawyer Ibrahim al-Modaimeegh, and activist Abdulaziz Meshaal were also imprisoned, said Shamdasani.
She underscored that OHCHR urges the Government to “unconditionally release all human rights defenders and activists who have been detained for their peaceful human rights work, including their decades-long campaigns for the lifting of the driving ban for women.”
Stressing that investigations must be held in a transparent manner, with full respect for due process rights, Shamdasani concluded by spelling out that “all human rights defenders should be able to carry out their crucial human rights work without fear of reprisals or prosecution.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 14 October 2018]
Image: The flag of Saudi Arabia (centre) flying at United Nations headquarters in New York. UN Photo/Loey Felipe
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