Israa al-Ghomgham: Saudi Female Activist Spared Death Penalty Amid Outrage

Saudi Arabia flag Israa al-Ghomgham death penalty
The flag of Saudi Arabia flies in Istanbul, on October 10, 2018. Authorities in Saudi Arabia have confirmed that its public prosecutor is no longer recommending the death penalty for female activist Israa al-Ghomgham, who has been held since 2015 after participating in peaceful anti-government protests. OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

Authorities in Saudi Arabia have denied that its public prosecutor is seeking the death penalty for female activist Israa al-Ghomgham, who has been held since 2015 after participating in peaceful anti-government protests.

The Saudi Arabian embassy in London made the denial to Newsweek on Thursday in response to a request for information about al-Ghomgham's case.

The 29-year-old was arrested in 2015 for her role in protests in the eastern region of Qatif. The area is predominantly Shiite, and al-Ghomgham became well-known for demanding an end to persecution of the country's Shiite minority by the autocratic government, which is controlled by the Sunni royal family.

She was one of six people, including her husband, arrested in connection with the demonstrations. Their alleged crimes included traveling abroad to attend courses on organizing rallies and protests, using social media to promote and document events, and using Facebook groups to disseminate videos.

Ali Adubisi, the director of the European-Saudi Organization for Human Rights, said there remain "serious concerns" over the Saudi government's conduct despite the denial.

"Replacing the death penalty is a continued violation as she is charged with offences relating to the expression of peaceful opinion," he explained. "Therefore, the request for imprisonment instead of execution is a form of continuous pressure on peaceful activists."

Until Thursday, al-Ghomgham was believed to be the first woman facing beheading for nonviolent activism. As such, her case received significant international attention from media and human rights organizations.

The Saudi Embassy in London told Newsweek that the public prosecutor is calling for a prison term, fines and the confiscation of anything found to have been used in her alleged crimes.

An embassy spokesperson later added that the public prosecutor had never sought the death penalty for al-Ghomgham. This is disputed by multiple human rights groups and legal professionals working on the case.

The reported death sentence recommendation for five of the accused, including al-Ghomgham, was seen by international observers as a striking recommendation given the nonviolent nature of their offenses.

The ESOHR, a human rights nonprofit group based in Germany, and Reprieve, a nonprofit group based in the U.K., confirmed to Newsweek they had received a copy of the new indictment that did not recommend the death penalty for al-Ghomgham.

There is no indication that the Saudi authorities have changed the capital punishment recommendations for the other four detainees. This may suggest the Saudis have denied their wish for al-Ghomgham's death to dodge the intensifying international scrutiny of her case.

Though prosecutors will not pursue beheading, al-Ghomgham could still face a lengthy prison sentence and restrictions on her personal freedoms when she is freed. In the past, human rights activists have been handed long-term travel and internet bans even after spending many years in prison.

Maya Foa, director of Reprieve, told Newsweek , "This decision serves to underline just how arbitrary and unjust the use of the death penalty is in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom must cease imposing the death penalty on individuals whose only 'crime' is the exercise of freedom of expression and assembly."

Foa called on the international community to "hold Saudi Arabia to account and call for a review of the cases of all of those on Saudi Arabia's death row and the commutation of death sentences handed down in violation of domestic and international laws."

All six of the accused are being tried in the opaque Specialized Criminal Court (SCC). Nominally an anti-terror body, the SCC is part of the Ministry of the Interior rather than the Ministry of Justice, placing it firmly within the national security sphere. It is used by the Saudi government to crush dissent from human rights and pro-democracy activists far from the prying eyes of the outside world.

Al-Ghomgham was scheduled to appear before the court again on January 13, but at the last moment the SCC canceled the session. This marked the fourth time the hearing had been postponed. The court cited departmental restructuring and reorganization for the delay.

According to Adubisi, there are 58 detainees facing death sentences in Saudi Arabia, most of whom are not accused of serious charges. He added that the death penalty recommendations against al-Ghomgham and her co-defendants raise "serious concerns about their fate."

This article has been updated to include additional reaction from the Saudi Arabian embassy in London.