By Rodney Dixon
15 Oct 2018
For the dozens of women and other activists arrested in Saudi Arabia this past year alone, Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance last week at the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul will not have come as a surprise. For those who have been able to leave the kingdom after speaking out, meanwhile, it has now become overwhelmingly clear that even on the outside they need to be extremely careful. The regime has a knack for using threats against family members as leverage in return for silence; these threats have taken on a new, alarming meaning.
The thoroughness of the Saudi regime in silencing opponents has significantly increased since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman came to power in 2017. I investigated this increase in detentions in a report I co-authored in January this year.
We were requested by the families of some of those detained to release our findings in an attempt to get governments and the United Nations to act to have them released. The report found that more than 60 perceived opponents of the Saudi government had been arrested – including prominent human rights defenders – in a major crackdown by the Saudi authorities. To date, no concrete steps have been taken to free them. They remain detained, with the exact whereabouts of many still unknown.
This was followed in May by the targeting of well-known female activists who had long been campaigning for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, including the right to drive. In June, just before the world hailed the lifting of the ban on women driving as a key sign that Bin Salman was “reforming” the kingdom, over a dozen of these activists were imprisoned. More arrests followed, including that of Samar Badawi – a recipient of the US International Women of Courage award – in early August.
Those arrested have all been smeared and labelled as “traitors”. They face trial and long prison sentences on bogus “security” charges that are completely unsubstantiated. Their situation is profoundly desperate and hopeless. It is scandalous that so little has been done to end their detentions. They are plainly unlawful and contrary to all well-established international standards.
Other female activists from Saudi Arabia who have managed to escape arrest have explained to me that they cannot speak out and be named in articles such as this one for fear of retribution. They have asked me as a lawyer representing Saudi victims to promote their voices, which are constantly silenced by their state, and to support their efforts for more rights in their own community.
One has expressed her deep frustration at the double standards of many governments: “They talk of the importance of women being equal, and being respected in the workplace, but when women are thrown in prison, and discriminated against in the most blatant ways possible by a regime who they regard as an ally and make huge profits from, they suddenly fall silent and lose their courage.”
Another has said: “I am at a total loss as to why world leaders will not stand up for women who have sacrificed everything for freedom; their bravery should embarrass the cowardice of politicians and businessmen who continue to deal with the Saudi authorities as though all is normal.”
At an event in Washington DC last week, aimed at questioning the idea that there was any kind of reform happening in Saudi Arabia, experts and human rights lawyers were making these exact points to the US government and policymakers. The timing was eerily telling: the event took place at the same time as the news broke about Khashoggi, who was also meant to have been speaking.
For all the very worst reasons, the international profile of his appalling case has further shone light on the plight of the women languishing in jail in Saudi Arabia. Their families and friends are understandably petrified that the same fate awaits them. They believe that this is a regime capable of carrying out the most deplorable crimes.
As a result of Khashoggi’s disappearance, there is now some hope that the international community will have to take decisive action to halt Saudi Arabia’s apparent campaign to eliminate any and all dissent. World leaders cannot leave these women without hope and at the mercy of rulers without any evident scruples; they should not be blinded by the lucrative contracts on offer from those who oppress.
Maybe now, political leaders and the business sector will have the will and courage to stand up together for the countless women wrongly imprisoned. It is a most opportune time to get them released and to secure their well-being.
• Rodney Dixon QC is an international human rights lawyer. He co-authored with Ken Macdonald QC the investigative report entitled “Shrouded in Secrecy: the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia following arrests in September 2017”