Israa al-Ghomgham could be the first female human rights activist to be sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia. On August 6, a public prosecutor in Riyadh recommended the death penalty for six political activists, including Ghomgham. She and her husband, Moussa al-Hashem who have been in prison since 2015, were sentenced to death on charges of protesting against the Saudi government and incitement to disobedience in the Shia-majority region, Qatif.
Ghomgham, 29, and her husband were arrested on December 8, 2015. She was one of the leaders of anti-government protests that started in Qatif in 2011, demanding the end of anti-Shia discrimination and the release of political prisoners.
At the final hearing, scheduled on October 28 2018, a judge will either confirm or reverse the recommendation for death penalty issued by the public prosecutor. If the decision is ratified by King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Ghongham will be beheaded by a sword.
Noteworthy is the fact that none of the charges against Ghongham relate to the use of violence, which under Saudi law warrants the death penalty. This indicates that the death penalty is being used in Saudi as a weapon to suppress dissent. Ali Adubisi, Director of the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) stated “It’s largely a revenge against the Arab Spring, and a punishment for Qatif, which witnessed the largest protests since 2011.” Adubisi continues “Sentencing a female human rights defender to death is a dangerous precedent in Saudi Arabia.” ESOHR’s latest count of people on death row in Saudi Arabia is around 58.
The verdict against Ghomgham has resulted in a social media campaign asking for her release and the release of activists arrested in the past year. The Shiite minority that lives in Qatif has complained that Sunni authorities banned them from practicing their religion, and that they are not given the same opportunities for work and education. The government has denied the accusations. According to rights advocacy groups, Saudi Arabia has executed Shiite activists in the past for political reasons. A recent UN report issued last June said, “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.”
According to Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia where in 2017 alone, 100 people were beheaded, remains “one of the most prolific executioners in the world.”