Israa al-Ghomgham – she defended the rights of minorities in Arabia…

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There was no warning. The men came looking for Israa al-Ghomgham on December 6, 2015. She was in Qatif, on the east coast of Saudi Arabia, the city that is home to some of the Kingdom’s bravest human rights defenders. For the State Intelligence Service agents who forcibly removed Israa and her husband from their home, it would have been just one more raid among many in which they had participated: the routine detention of activists who took part in demonstrations demanding an end to discrimination against Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority.

Israa al-Ghomgham reportedly did not know where she was being taken. The young couple were taken straight to al-Mabahith prison in Dammam, the capital of the oil-rich Eastern Province. It is just one element of a network of tightly controlled penal institutions run by the Saudi security services – prisons designed to incarcerate terrorists, not nonviolent human rights defenders like Israa.

Threat of execution

Little is known about what happened to Israa al-Ghomgham in the 32 months before his first court appearance. Admittedly, she was denied access to a lawyer at the start of her detention and interrogation. And she alleged that she had been abused. But none of his allegations have been investigated – with cases of torture being widely reported in Saudi Arabia.

On August 6, 2018, Israa al-Ghomgham appeared before the infamous Specialized Criminal Court, a body set up to handle counterterrorism cases. She and her husband, Moussa al-Hashem, were charged alongside four other defenders of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite population. When she stood in the dock, Israa had no legal representation. And the indictment was long: “participation in demonstrations”, “incitement to demonstrate”, “attempt to inflame public opinion”, “filming demonstrations and posting on social networks”, “providing support morale to rioters”, “joining a terrorist entity aiming to create chaos and unrest within the Kingdom”.

The public prosecutor requested the execution of the defendants. This made Israa al-Ghomgham the first Saudi activist to be threatened with beheading for protesting peacefully.

The Arab Spring

The nightmare of a possible death penalty and her incarceration had steered Israa al-Ghomgham away from her first involvement as a human rights defender during the Arab Spring of 2011. Like many residents of Saudi Arabia’s oppressed Eastern Province, Israa believed that the unrest could bring change: civil and political rights for everything Saudis, not just the Kingdom’s Sunni majority.

Discrimination against Saudi Arabia’s minority Shia community is well documented. Shia are profoundly disadvantaged within public education and justice systems, employment opportunities, and religious freedom.

It was during those heady days of the Arab Spring that Israa al-Ghomgham first met the man who would become her husband. Both shared a desire for peaceful change and they stubbornly took the path of nonviolent campaigning while calling for reform.

But it was an activism that did not go unnoticed. Saudi Arabia’s callous approach to anyone perceived as a “dissident” caught up with Israa al-Ghomgham and Moussa al-Hashem in 2015. The result was their arrest, detention and trial.

Conviction

In 2018, after Israa al-Ghomgham’s first court appearance, 18 UN experts reviewed the cases of a number of women human rights defenders detained in Saudi Arabia. They expressed “deep concern” for Israa and said the charges against her appeared “to lack legal basis”.

In February 2019, after a huge international outcry, Saudi prosecutors dropped their demands for the execution of Israa al-Ghomgham. Although she no longer faces death threats, her husband and the other defendants could still be executed by the state.

In February 2021, after more than five years of harsh detention and at just 32 years old, Israa al-Ghomgham was sentenced to eight years in prison. Upon her release, she will face a travel ban for a further eight years.

And so, Israa continues to be incarcerated in al-Mabahith prison in Dammam, only allowed one short visit per month.

Please join us in demanding the release of Israa al-Ghomgham.

For Arabic, click here.