Saudi court sentences Shia activist Israa Al-Ghomgham to eight years in prison

Saudi court sentences Shia activist Israa Al-Ghomgham to eight years in prison
Saudi human rights defender Israa Al-Ghomgham, 32, was sentenced to eight years in prison for documenting protests in the Al-Qatif region.
3 min read
14 February, 2021
Al-Ghomgham started to be known for her documentation of the Saudi Eastern province protests [GETTY]
A Saudi Shia rights defender has been sentenced to eight years by an anti-terrorist court, a rights group reported on Saturday.

Israa Al-Ghomgham, 32, will also face an eight-year travel ban after she serves her sentence, the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) reported.

Her verdict remains preliminary and subject to appeal, the GCHR said.

Ghomgham was denied access to a lawyer during the early stage of her detention and interrogation, the GCHR said, adding that her rights were violated.

She was arrested in December 2015 along with her husband Mousa al-Hashim, also a rights activist, over their participation in protests in Al-Qatif region, in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring.

During that time, Ghomgham became known for documenting the protests in the easter province, which took place in 2011-2012 and then again in 2017-2018.

According to the US-based organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW), Ghomgham’s charges include participating in protests, inciting protests, chanting slogans against the regime, attempting to inflame public opinion, filming protests, publishing on social media and providing “moral support to rioters”.

In 2018, UN experts expressed concern for Ghomgham, who they said was being tried before the Specialized Criminal Court on "charges that appear to lack legal bases".

The SCC was created in 2008 to deal with terrorism cases but has instead been targeting human rights defenders and other activists.

HRW was also very vocal about it, linking Ghomgham’s situation to her being a Muslim Shia, a religious minority mostly concentrated in the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia – an area that has organised and participated in demonstrations calling for an end to the systematic discrimination they face in their own country.

"The Saudi government discriminates against its Shia minority in public education, religious freedom, and employment, but the criminal justice system in particular has been repeatedly exploited to mete out draconian punishments against members of the Shia community following grossly unfair trials," HRW said in a statement.

Confronted with strong international opposition, authorities confirmed in 2019 that they would not seek a death penalty against Ghomgham.

Her husband and other defendants in the case remain at risk of the death sentence.

Pressure on Saudi Arabia

Ghomgham’s sentencing took place days after Saudi Arabia released several other activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, who was sentenced to almost six years in prison last December under a broad counterterrorism law, after campaigning for an end to the driving ban against women before it was lifted in 2018.

Her early release was widely expected as the judge suspended part of her sentence and took into account time already served.

The move came as Saudi Arabia faced new scrutiny from the United States, where President Joe Biden has vowed to reassess the US-Saudi partnership and bring up human rights issues.

"What we want now is real justice," her sister Lina told an online news conference. "That Loujain is completely, unconditionally free."

On the same day, women’s rights defender Nouf Abdulaziz was also conditionally released from prison.

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