On August 21, 2018, Saudi Arabian public prosecutors announced that they were considering the death penalty for five Saudi Shia activists. One of the five is Israa al-Ghomgham, a female activist who could become the first woman sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia. Ghomgham, along with four other Saudi Shia activists including her husband, engaged in peaceful demonstrations for Shia rights beginning in 2011 during the rise of the Arab Spring, which led to their 2015 arrests.
“Any execution is appalling, but seeking the death penalty for activists like Israa al-Ghomgham, who are not even accused of violent behavior, is monstrous,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, who directs the Middle East sector of Human Rights Watch. “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.”
Responding to peaceful protests with the death penalty is compromising both to proponents of human decency and order, and these actions are symptomatic of a larger illness. If Saudi Arabia is to continue to suppress and murder its own citizens, its actions could lead to its internal combustion. To preserve its tenuous position of prosperity, the Saudi Arabian government must honor the voices of its insurgents—or at least allow them to live.
Saudi Arabia, a desert country in the Middle East said to be the birthplace of Islam, holds a complex position at the pinnacle of capital and culture. It has the world’s third highest national total estimated value of natural resources. It is home to the world’s largest oil company, and it has been the proponent of various reform agendas, significant amount of money invested in solar energy. It is also ruled by the ultraconservative Wahhabi religious movement, which is part of Sunni Islam.
It has shown support for counterterrorism and revolutionary liberal and Arab Spring ideals and has supported rebel forces in Syria and Yemen, but internally it has been a breeding ground for violent forms of radical Islam, placing it at a crux between the most progressive and oppressive sides of the ideological spectrum. The nation’s 32-year-old king, Mohammed bin Salman, has been pushing to modernize his country, opening movie theatres and allowing women to drive for the first time—but his actions towards protestors despite his presentation of liberalism rings eerily close to the actions of Bashar al Assad, Syrian president who also began his reign by encouraging Westernization in Syria before cracking down on protestors and unleashing a bloody civil war. Under Salman, critics of the Saudi Arabian regime have been arrested in scores, and 58 people are currently on death row. Many of these prisoners are women, often arrested for protesting the country’s guardianship system, which places Saudi Arabian men in almost complete control of their daughters’ or wives’ lives.
Israa al-Ghomgham and her husband were arrested on December 5, 2015, and are on trial at the Specialized Criminal Court, which Saudi Arabia installed in 2008 and which has drawn expense criticism from human rights activists, sentencing eight protestors to death in 2014 and 14 in 2016. Currently human rights campaigners are working to secure her freedom and life.
EDEN ARIELLE GORDON is a writer, musician, and avid traveler. She attends Barnard College in New York.