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COVID-19 Conversations: Saudi Arabia’s imprisoned women’s rights defenders

The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing and exacerbating gender inequalities around the world. Each week, we are sharing insights from Equality Now experts about how women’s and girls’ lives are being affected by the pandemic and what can be done to address the challenges. 

This week, we talk to Suad Abu-Dayyeh, Equality Now’s Middle East and North Africa Consultant, about the threat that COVID-19 poses for imprisoned women rights activists in Saudi Arabia.

May 15th marks the second anniversary since the Saudi government launched a crackdown against women’s human rights defenders (WHRDs). Please can you give us an update?

Two years ago, Saudi authorities began a wave of arrests targeting prominent women’s rights activists who were peacefully advocating for an end to the legal ban on women drivers, and for the dismantling of the oppressive male guardianship system.

According to reports, these WHRDs have been denied access to legal representation and detained in cruel and inhumane conditions that constitute torture under both Saudi and international law. Family members have spoken out about state authorities subjecting the women to grave human rights violations including sexual assault, electrocution, flogging, sleep deprivation, and solitary confinement.

Five WHRDs are still languishing in prison. They are Loujain al-Hathloul, Nassima al-Sada, Samar Badawi, Maya Al-Zahrani, and Nouf Abdelaziz. Another eight have been temporarily released, and all thirteen are facing criminal prosecution with the possibility of prison terms as punishment for charges relating to promoting women’s rights and calling for an end to the male guardianship system.

How is the COVID-19 pandemic making their situation worse?

There are currently over 49,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Saudi Arabia and the heightened risk of infection in detention centers has made the release of these WHRDs even more urgent.

Of particular worry is the failure of Saudi prison authorities to provide adequate medical care to inmates who fall ill, as demonstrated in April when pro-democracy leader Abdullah al-Hamid died in jail after being denied life-saving treatment for a long-standing heart condition.

Also concerning is how the Saudi government has used COVID-19 as a justification to indefinitely postpone Loujain al-Hathloul’s trial date, and her family has been barred from seeing her during the outbreak.

To curtail the potentially devastating spread of coronavirus amongst overcrowded prison populations with limited access to adequate sanitation, thousands of inmates have been released by governments across the Middle East, including in Saudi Arabia.

Equality Now is a member of the “Free Saudi Activists” coalition and has been campaigning alongside other human rights organizations and activists to call on Saudi authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Loujain, Nassima, Samar, Maya, and Nouf, and drop all charges against them.

Under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has pledged to relax male guardianship laws and some reforms have been introduced. For example, the ban on women driving was lifted in June 2018 and women are now able to travel and apply for a passport without authorization from a male guardian. However, these measures cannot mask the continued oppression of women, who still endure a myriad of restrictions on everyday life.

Saudi Arabia is obligated to uphold international human rights standards and this includes ending the unlawful detainment and persecution of women’s rights activists. Peacefully advocating for gender equality must never be treated as a crime and Saudi Arabia’s citizens should be free to exercise their civil rights without fear of intimidation, torture, or arrest.

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