Who Is Israa al-Ghomgham? Female Saudi Activist May Be Beheaded After Death Sentence

In this file photo, a man walks beside the Saudi flag in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on December 9, 2015. Jordan Pix/Getty Images

Human rights figures in Saudi Arabia have warned the kingdom may soon execute a female activist who was handed a provisional death sentence.

Israa al-Ghomgham, 29, has been imprisoned since 2015, along with her husband Moussa al-Hashem. Both were jailed for involvement in anti-government protests in the Shiite majority region of Qatif, in the east of the country. Saudi Arabia is majority Sunni Muslim, as is the autocratic royal family.

According to Middle East Eye, Ghomgham was a leader of the protests that have been simmering since 2011, supporters of which accuse the government of anti-Shiite discrimination and demand the release of political prisoners.

On August 6, Ghomgham appeared in front of the Specialised Criminal Court—used for terrorism cases—in the country's capital, Riyadh. The public prosecutor recommended death sentences for Ghomgham, Hashem and four other defendants.

The final hearing in Ghomgham's case will be held on October 28, when a judge will either confirm or overturn the death penalty. If upheld, the case will go to King Salman bin Abdulaziz for final ratification, after which the beheading will be carried out.

Ali Adubisi, the director of the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights (ESOHR), said Ghomgham's sentence sets "a dangerous precedent" for Saudi activists. That all of the charges are related to protesting rather than any violent actions that would normally carry the sentence means that any detained political activists could face the same fate.

Adubisi told the Middle East Eye that the sentence is designed as "revenge against the Arab Spring, and a punishment for Qatif, which witnessed the largest protests since 2011." An ESOHR report released last week suggested the kingdom remains "wedded" to capital punishment, even as its rulers try to promote a more liberal image of the country.

Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said all executions are "appalling, but seeking the death penalty for activists like Israa al-Ghomgham, who are not even accused of violent behavior, is monstrous." Whitson added: "Every day, the Saudi monarchy's unrestrained despotism makes it harder for its public relations teams to spin the fairy tale of 'reform' to allies and international business."

Ghomgham's provisional sentence has sparked a social media campaign calling for mercy. Though the country has executed women in the past as punishment for violent crimes like murder, this could be the first time an activist is killed.

Circulation of a 2015 video showing the execution of a Saudi woman sparked reports Ghomgham may have already been executed, but her family dismissed the rumors as false.

At least 58 people are currently on death row in Saudi Arabia according to the ESOHR, 31 of whom have exhausted the appeals process. Though fewer people were killed in 2017 than 2016, the kingdom remains the third most prominent country for executions. The rate of executions has risen with the ascension of King Salman to the throne in 2015, reaching levels not seen since the 1990s.

Though King Salman and his son and heir Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have attempted to promote a more liberal image of Saudi Arabia internationally, its citizens remain severely repressed. The prince has been the face of the supposed modernization of the country, and the driving force behind the Vision 2030 project that seeks to diversify the economy and create a "more vibrant society."

"If the crown prince is truly serious about reform, he should immediately step in to ensure no activist is unjustly detained for his or her human rights work," Whitson argued.