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Campaign to Whitewash Saudi Arabia’s Image Does Little for Women in the Kingdom

Uma Mishra-Newbery is the Interim Executive Director of Women’s March Global, which is a founding member of the Free Saudi Women Coalition & Kristina Stockwood works with the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), which is a founding member of the Free Saudi Women Coalition.

GENEVA, May 8 2019 (IPS) - Amid a high-profile public relations campaign to convince the world just how much the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is modernising – highlighted in last year’s lifting of the ban on women driving – Saudi authorities continue their relentless persecution of women human rights defenders.

A trial that has drawn international condemnation and intensified criticism of the country’s human rights record, features nine women who were arrested in 2018 for campaigning for the right to drive and an end to the Kingdom’s male guardianship system.

Since April 4, 2019, Saudi Arabia has arrested at least an additional 13 writers and bloggers, including two dual Saudi-American citizens and a pregnant feminist, in apparent retaliation against supporters of the detained women activists.

Along with the ongoing trials, the latest arrests serve to show that allowing women to drive was little more than a publicity stunt as part of a marketing campaign involving expensive golf tournaments, concerts featuring international celebrities, endorsements from some of the world’s richest multinational companies.

The past 12 months have been anything but the modern, revolutionary times promoted by Vision 2030 and Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, who has led a brutal crackdown on civil society and women’s rights since he came to power. Dissent is absolutely not tolerated.

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi – who had become a critic of the Crown Prince – was viciously murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Saudi-led war on Yemen has continued, prompting numerous countries to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia, including Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland. Weapons and armoured vehicles have also been used to violently suppress public protests in Saudi Arabia.

Activist Israa Al-Ghomgham became the first woman activist to face the death penalty after she was arrested for peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations in 2015. While she is no longer at risk of capital punishment, she remains imprisoned and her co-defendants still could face death simply for protesting.

One of the most glaring human rights violations of the past year, however, has been the unlawful imprisonment and subsequent torture, sexual assault, and solitary confinement of numerous women human rights defenders.

Male guardianship has been further entrenched by a recently popularized app allowing men to track and control the location and travel of the women under their control (this app is readily available on Apple and Google Play, by the way). Rather than protesting the app, we should pressure Saudi Arabia to end the guardianship system.

Last May, Saudi Arabia arrested a dozen women’s rights activists just weeks before the Saudi government was set to lift its ban on women drivers. Most of these activists had been actively working for years to help end the guardianship system, and to lift the driving ban, publicly touted as part of the Crown Prince’s reform plan.

But before the ban was lifted, they received phone calls telling them to keep their mouths shut and just enjoy the fact that they could now drive. In June and July 2018, at least another eight defenders were arrested, bringing the total to over twenty known women’s rights defenders in detention.

Among the women who remain in prison since last year are Loujain Al-Hathloul, Nouf Abdelaziz, Hatoon Al-Fassi, Samar Badawi, Nassima Al-Sadah, Mohammed Al-Bajadi, Amal Al-Harbi, and Shadan Al-Enazi.

Not all of them have been brought to trial yet, and others can’t be named. Of great concern is that some reports put the number of rights defenders detained since Prince Salman came to power in the thousands.

According to numerous testimonies, some of the women detained last year were repeatedly tortured by electric shocks, floggings and waterboarding, leaving them shaking uncontrollably and unable to walk or sit properly and with bruises and scratches covering their thighs, faces and necks.

In addition to torture, several detainees have been subject to sexual assault and sexual harassment. At least one of the detained women attempted suicide multiple times.

On March 13, nine women’s rights defenders were finally brought to court with two other women. But none were given access to any legal counsel until the second session of the trial two weeks later.

Foreign reporters and diplomats were not allowed in court. The women found out that confessions signed under duress during interrogation would be used against them.

On March 28, 2019, three women were temporarily released, including long-time women’s rights campaigner and academic Aziza Al-Youssef and Eman Al-Nafjan, who blogs on women’s rights.

Cheering this release only contributes to the Saudi propaganda cycle. It doesn’t change the fact that they were severely tortured while arbitrarily detained for months, nor that they are still charged for their women’s rights activism and will be back in court in early June.

Not to mention that Al-Youssef’s son Salah Al-Haidar was among those arrested this April, along with feminist writer Khadijah Al-Harbi, who is pregnant.

At the second session of the trial, the judge indicated that more women on trial would be freed on bail yet on April 3, the women were again in court, and remained imprisoned. Instead, another round of arrests began the following day.

The next hearing and possible verdict for the eight women on trial who have not yet been freed was scheduled for April 17 but inexplicably cancelled.

Saudi Arabia continues to act with impunity – facilitated by the silence of the international community until recently. The actions of the Kingdom have been largely swept under the rug, disguised by the claim that it is reforming and modernizing.

Saudi Arabia is still a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), allowed a seat at the table despite their blatant disregard for human rights. This must change.

Recognising the jarring absence of action by international actors, civil society has filled the gap by actively calling for accountability of Saudi authorities and ensuring that the women’s rights activists who have been detained remain constantly in the public eye.

The #FreeSaudiWomen coalition, a group of seven NGOs advocating for the immediate and unconditional release of all Saudi women human rights defenders, created a petition which has been signed by nearly a quarter of a million people.

Continuous awareness of the human rights violations in Saudi Arabia is the first step. But there is more that can be done: acting to hold accountable governments, companies, performers and sporting groups that continue to engage with Saudi Arabia’s white-washing campaign, is the other.

Unless a systemic act of solidarity is enacted, Saudi Arabia will continue to use its economic and military power to suppress the fundamental civic freedoms of women’s rights activists in the country. On so many levels, we should be very scared that the United States thinks it’s okay to sell nuclear power technology to Saudi Arabia – with six deals recently approved secretly.

The Saudi crisis involves numerous key players and a solution might seem unattainable, but a world that does not act when a country arbitrarily imprisons and tortures its citizens sets a terrifying precedent for leaders across the globe.

In a context where 6 out of 10 people live in countries where civic freedoms are restricted in some form, according to the CIVICUS Monitor, Saudi Arabia is a stark example of what can happen when states act in impunity.

As a start, 36 UN Member states issued a statement at the UN HRC’s session this March calling for the immediate release of the women’s rights defenders and an investigation into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

While they should be lauded for their actions, together with other stakeholders, member states to the UN need to up the ante: issue a full resolution at the next session of the Council holding Saudi Arabia accountable.

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