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SAUDI ARABIA: ARBITRARY DETENTION OF 2 WOMEN'S RIGHTS ACTIVISTS

The International League Against Arbitrary Detention urges the Government of Saudi Arabia to take all the necessary actions to implement the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention Opinion No. 27/2023 concerning Salma bint Sami bin Abdulmohsen al-Shehab and Nourah bin Saeed al-Qahtani starting for the Government of Saudi Arabia to immediately and unconditionally release Salma bint Sami bin Abdulmohsen al-Shehab and Nourah bin Saeed al-Qahtani and to accord them an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations in accordance with international law.


Read the full WGAD Opinion concerning Salma bint Sami bin Abdulmohsen al-Shehab and Nourah bin Saeed al-Qahtani (Saudi Arabia): Opinion No. 27/2023


ARRESTED FOR PUBLICLY ADVOCATING FOR HUMAN RIGHTS


Salma bint Sami bin Abdulmohsen al-Shehab, a 34-year-old woman from Saudi Arabia, is a prominent women’s rights advocate and member of the Shia Muslim minority. She is also a PhD student at the medical school of the University of Leeds. On her Twitter account, she has peacefully defended women’s rights, called for the freedom of wrongfully detained human rights activists in Saudi Arabia, and supported freedom for Palestine. Ms. Al-Shehab also advocated for the imprisoned Loujain Alhathloul, against the oppression of Arab women, and intersectional feminism. During her vacation in Saudi Arabia on January 15, 2021, Ms. Al-Shehab found herself summoned for questioning at the Presidency of State Security facility in Dammam, where she was interrogated without legal representation. The officers pressed her about her online support for Ms. Alhathloul and her viewing of dissenting YouTube content. They attempted to coerce her into endorsing the banned Muslim Brotherhood by resorting to threats, insults against her family, and harassment based on her Shia Muslim background. Upon concluding the interrogation, they detained her in a jail operated by the Presidency of State Security, without presenting an arrest warrant or specifying any charges against her.


Ms. Nourah bin Saeed al-Qahtani is a 47-year-old woman activist from Saudi Arabia, advocating on Twitter through two anonymous accounts for human rights in Saudi Arabia, calling for the release of political detainees, and criticizing human rights abuses committed by the Saudi authorities. Officers from the Presidency of State Security arrested her on July 4, 2021.


DETAINED INCOMMUNICADO AND CHARGED WITH TERRORISM AND CYBERCRIME OFFENCES


Ms. Al-Shehab remained detained incommunicado for nearly two weeks,, shuttled between Dammam and Riyadh for questioning, often unable to notify her family of her whereabouts. In October 2021, after ten months of detention, she was formally charged with terrorist offences under the Anti-Terrorism Law. On March 14, 2022, the Specialized Criminal Court convicted Ms. Al-Shehab of disseminating false information that allegedly endangered national security and public order, in line with Article 43 of the Anti-Terrorism Law. This action was deemed to have amplified the reach of terrorist messaging. She was initially sentenced to six years in prison, and the court ordered the seizure of her phone and the permanent closure of her Twitter account. However, following an appeal by the Public Prosecutor on August 19, 2022, the Specialized Criminal Court of Appeal revised her sentence to 34 years in prison based on Articles 34, 38, 43, and 44 of the Anti-Terrorism Law, as well as Article 6 of the Anti-Cybercrime Law, along with a discretionary 5-year term.


Ms. al-Qahtani was sentenced by the the Specialized Criminal Court to 13 years in prison, with half of the term suspended, and imposing a 13-year travel ban. This ruling was also made under the purview of articles 43, 46, and 53(1) of the Anti-Terrorism Law. Additionally, the Court, in accordance with article 58 of the Anti-Terrorism Law, ordered the confiscation of her phone, the closure of both her Twitter accounts, and the seizure of her phone's SIM card. The Public Prosecutor filed an appeal that Ms. Al-Qahtani should be sentenced on the basis of the prison sentences provided for in article 6 of the Anti-Cybercrime Law and articles 30, 34, 35, 38, 43, 44, and 46 of the Anti-Terrorism Law. On August 9, 2022, the Specialized Criminal Court of Appeal sentenced Ms. Al- Qahtani to 45 years in prison.


THE ANTI-TERRORISM LAW AND ANTI-CYBERCRIME LAW VIOLATE THE PRINCIPLE OF LEGALITY


The Working Group found that the broad and ambiguous provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Law and the Anti-Cybercrime Law, coupled with the imposition of discretionary one and five-year prison terms on Ms. Al-Shehab and Ms. Al-Qahtani's sentences, violate the principle of legality as stated in Article 11(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


For the above reasons, the Working Group concluded that the authorities' failure to establish a legal basis for the arrest and detention of Ms. Al-Shehab and Ms. Al-Qahtani renders their deprivation of liberty arbitrary under Category I.


DETAINED AS A RESULT OF THEIR PEACEFUL EXERCICE OF THE RIGHT TO FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION


Regarding the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the dissemination of human rights messages by Ms. Al-Shehab and Ms. Al-Qahtani on Twitter falls within the right to freedom of opinion and expression protected under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Furthermore, the Government failed to demonstrate that the detention of Ms. Al-Shehab and Ms. Al-Qahtani was necessary or proportionate, violating Article 29(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


The criticism of government policy by Ms. Al-Shehab and Ms. Al-Qahtani through their commentary on social media concerned matters of public interest. It was accepted that both subjects were detained for exercising their rights, under Article 21(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to take part in the conduct of public affairs. The Working Group concluded their deprivation of liberty is arbitrary under Category II.


DENIED THE RIGHT TO LEGAL ASSISTANCE AND TO A FAIR TRIAL


The Working Group noted that the Government's failure to ensure Ms. Al-Shehab's and Ms. Al-Qahtani's access to legal assistance throughout her ordeal, coupled with the denial of her right to a fair and public hearing by an impartial authority, further infringes upon Articles 10 and 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Principles 15, 17, and 18 of the Body of Principles. Moreover, there is credible evidence to suggest that Ms. Al-Shehab endured cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, violating Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Consequently, the Working Group concluded that the detention of both Ms. Al-Shehab and Ms. Al-Qahtani was also arbitrary under Category III.


A DISCRIMINARY PATTERN OF PERSECUTION TARGETTING WOMEN'S RIGHT ACTIVISTS


The arrests, treatment, and excessively long sentences imposed on Ms. Al-Shehab and Ms. Al-Qahtani indicate that they were targeted due to their activism in promoting human rights and expressing their views peacefully on social media. Additionally, Ms. Al-Shehab appears to have been discriminated against based on her gender and religion. As a result, their deprivation of liberty is in violation of Articles 2 and 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as Principle 5(1) of the Body of Principles, and is deemed arbitrary under Category V.

CONCLUSIONS OF THE UN WORKING GROUP AGAINST ARBITRARY DETENTION


In light of the foregoing, the UN Working Group Against Arbitrary Detention considered that the detention of Ms. Al-Shehab was arbitrary and fell under categories I, II, III, and V because her deprivation of liberty was in contravention of articles 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 19 and 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Also in light of the foregoing, the UN Working Group Against Arbitrary Detention considered that the detention of Ms. Al-Qahtani was arbitrary and fell under categories I, II, III, and V because her deprivation of liberty was in contravention of articles 2, 3, 7, 9, 10, 11, 19 and 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


The Working Group expressed its utmost concern regarding the source’s allegation both subjects are still in detention. The Working Group considered that, taking into account all the circumstances of the case, the appropriate remedy would be to unconditionally release both Ms. Al-Shehab and Ms Al-Qahtani immediately and accord them an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations, in accordance with international law.

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