A Shiite woman and four other activists will be executed if a Saudi prosecutor gets his way.
Israa al-Ghomgham and her husband were taken into custody in December 2015 for protesting anti-Shiite discrimination in Saudia Arabia's Qatif province. Earlier this month, at a hearing before the country's special terrorism tribunal, a prosecutor recommended that the couple and several like-minded activists be executed. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), six activists were charged in total, though only five face the death penalty.
Their alleged crimes were completely nonviolent, according to HRW:
The Public Prosecution, which reports directly to the king, accused the detained activists of several charges that do not resemble recognizable crimes, including "participating in protests in the Qatif region," "incitement to protest," "chanting slogans hostile to the regime," "attempting to inflame public opinion," "filming protests and publishing on social media," and "providing moral support to rioters." It called for their execution based on the Islamic law principle of ta'zir, in which the judge has discretion over the definition of what constitutes a crime and over the sentence.
A judge will hear their case on October 28, then determine whether or not to move forward with the death penalty. Depending on the judge's decision, al-Ghomgham could become the first female activist to be executed in the country.
Saudi Arabia has recently implemented some limited liberal reforms. Most notably, women are now allowed to drive and to work outside the home. But as Reuters notes, there has also been a renewed crackdown on free speech, and particularly on dissent against the government.
The situation is particularly bad for Shiite Muslims, who are vastly outnumbered by Sunnis in Saudi Arabia. Shiite activists say the government doesn't allow them to practice their version of Islam freely. Some of them have been executed for speaking out.
"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," says Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East director. "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."
The Saudi government put at least 100 people to death last year, according to Amnesty International. The European Saudi Organization for Human Rights tells Middle East Eye that 58 more are currently on death row.