Female Saudi Arabian Activist on Death Row for Peaceful Protest

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.

Saudi Arabian Flag. Iqbal Osman. Wikimedia Commons

Saudi Arabian Flag. Iqbal Osman. Wikimedia Commons

“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.

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“I Am For Russia”

What you should know about the Pussy Riot World Cup demonstration.



On July 15 during the middle of the World Cup final between France and Croatia, four protesters dressed as Russian police officers dashed onto the field, briefly halting the progress of the game.

In a statement made on twitter, the punk protest group Pussy Riot claimed responsibility for the disturbance.

Pussy Riot was founded in 2011 as a feminist protest punk rock group and has since become a powerful symbol of Russian resistance to the Putin regime. One of the groups most well known projects was their “punk prayer” protest in which members of the group in colourful balaclavas sang an anti-Putin political prayer in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior during the lead up to Russia’s 2012 election. The song and location of the protest were meant to serve as a commentary on the co-dependent relationship of the church and state in Russia. In response, two of the group's members were jailed for almost two years.

The New Yorker writes that in Pussy Riot’s statement on twitter claiming responsibility for the protest, the group cited Russian Poet Aleksandrovich Prigov’s work contrasting the difference between “heavenly” police officers who care for a utopian society, and “earthly” police officers who maintain corrupt systems. According to a video statement made by the group, “the Heavenly Policeman will protect a baby in her sleep, while the earthly policeman persecutes political prisoners and jails people for sharing and liking posts on social media.” In The New Yorker, Masha Gessen compares the group’s intrusion on the soccer match to the police’s intrusion in the everyday lives of citizens. She writes that “the beautiful world of sport has its bubble punctured by people running and flailing haphazardly, intent on destruction.” According to Pussy Riot’s own statement, “the earthly policeman, who intervenes in the game every day and knows no rules, is destroying our world.”

The police uniforms worn by the group carry a powerful symbolic message, but were also instrumental in enabling the group to carry out the protest. "No one stopped us," Pyotr Verzilov, a member of Pussy Riot told the BBC, "I know the Russian psychology: a police uniform is sacred. Nobody will ask for your permit or accreditation. I pretended to be yelling into my phone - 'Nikolayevich, where do you want me to look for them?!' - and I gestured to the steward to let me through the gate. He opened it."

Along with the explanation of the symbolism of their protest, Pussy Riot presented this list of demands:

1. Let all political prisoners free.

2. Not imprison for “likes”.

3. Stop Illegal arrests on rallies.

4. Allow political competition in the country.

5. Not fabricate criminal accusations and not keep people in jails for no reason.

6. Turn the earthly policeman into the heavenly policeman.

Shortly following the match, the Pussy Riot members who participated in the protest were sentenced to 15 days in jail and a 3 year ban from Russian sporting events. A video clip tweeted by anti-Putin activist Alexei Navalny shows the interrogation of two of the group's members. In the clip the police officer accuses them of bringing shame to Russia and says, "sometimes I regret that it's not 1937," referring to the Great Purge under Stalin in which at least a million people were executed. As the interrogation continues Verzilov says what become the most poignant words of the video, "I am for Russia, just like you — if you are for Russia."

The Pussy Riot protest is a reminder of the conditions millions of Russian people live under everyday.


EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her. 

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