Saudi Arabia must immediately free women human rights defenders held in crackdown, say UN experts
27 June 2018
GENEVA (27 June 2018) – UN human rights experts* are urging Saudi Arabia to immediately release a number of women’s human rights defenders arrested in a nationwide crackdown by the authorities, as the country celebrates the official lifting of the ban on women driving on Sunday.
“In stark contrast with this celebrated moment of liberation for Saudi women, women’s human rights defenders have been arrested and detained on a wide scale across the country, which is truly worrying and perhaps a better indication of the Government’s approach to women’s human rights. We call for the urgent release of all of those detained while pursuing their legitimate activities in the promotion and protection of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia,” the experts said in a joint statement.
“Women human rights defenders face compounded stigma, not only because of their work as human rights defenders, but also because of discrimination on gender grounds,” they added.
The crackdown began on 15 May 2018 with a spate of arrests of prominent women’s human rights defenders. Over the following three weeks, some 12 other human rights defenders, including both women and men, were also arrested. The majority of them have been specifically advocating for women’s human rights and for the lifting of the driving ban. Reports indicate that a number of those arrested face extremely serious charges, raising fears that each could face up to 20 years in prison.
Although exact charges have not been confirmed, reports have stated that some of the defenders stand accused of engaging in suspicious communications with foreign entities working to undermine Saudi national security, and of trespassing against the country’s religious and national foundations.
Among those arrested is Mohammed Saleh Al-Bajadi, a co-founder of the now-banned Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), who was reportedly forcibly disappeared from his home on 24 May 2018. There are also concerns over at least one woman human rights defender who is being held incommunicado.
“Saudi Arabia has won acclaim for its modernization under Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, including the ending of the ban on women driving, but these arrests portray a contradictory stance in policy regarding women’s rights,” the experts said.
Though four of those arrested have been released, the majority remain in detention. It is believed that some cases have now been transferred to the Special Criminal Court.
“We reiterate our long-time concern over others detained in Saudi Arabia on the basis of their activism and the exercise of their right to freedom of expression as well as their right to freedom of association, including Raef Badawi,” the experts said.
“We urge the Saudi Government to show a true commitment to improve its human rights record by taking a more progressive stance, especially with regards to women’s rights. The first step in demonstrating such commitment is to free the human rights defenders who remain in prison solely as a result of working to advance the enjoyment of rights for all,” the experts concluded.
The experts have been in contact with the Government of Saudi Arabia regarding the issues highlighted.
The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.