On 30 July, Saudi officials arrested prominent human rights defenders and women’s rights activists Samar Badawi and Naseema Alsada. Their arrests were overseen by the Presidency of State Security, Saudi Arabia’s domestic security and intelligence service and a body complicit in numerous human rights abuses, and they signal that the Saudi government remains intent on silencing critical voices and activists. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) and the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights (ESOHR) strongly condemn their arrests and calls on the Government of Saudi Arabia to immediately drop all charges against them and release them and all other prisoners of conscience unjustly detained.
Samar Badawi has long been active in promoting women’s rights. She came to prominence in July 2010, when Jeddah’s General Court ruled in her favor in a case in which she challenged the kingdom’s pervasive male guardianship system. The lawyer in her case was Waleed Abu al-Khair a human rights defender and associate of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA). Because of her activism against the guardianship system and on behalf of women’s rights, the United States State Department awarded Badawi an International Woman of Courage Award in 2012. Since then, she has remained active in working against the guardianship system, even as she came under increasing government scrutiny and harassment.
In September 2014, she attended the 27th session of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, where she spoke on a panel on human rights violations in the kingdom and also delivered an oral intervention calling for the release of her detained ex-husband, Waleed Abu al-Khair, as well as the release of other political prisoners. Three months later, when she attempted to travel to Brussels, Belgium to attend the 16th EU-NGO Human Rights Forum, she discovered she was banned from travel. ADHRB and ESOHR believe the travel ban is a reprisal because of her statement at the UN HRC. On 12 January 2016, authorities briefly detained Badawi for a day in Jeddah’s Dhahban prison with her two-year-old daughter, because of her opposition to restrictions imposed on women’s healthcare and ability to travel. Then, on 13 February 2017, officials again harassed her when they summoned her for questioning, ordering her to appear at Jeddah’s Bureau of Investigation on 15 February, although no reason was given.
Badawi’s arrest came soon after Saudi officials arrested prominent women’s rights activist Naseema Alsada. Like Badawi, Alsada has long been active in promoting women’s rights, including women’s right to drive, as well as broader efforts aimed at promoting human rights in the kingdom. She has advocated on behalf of arrested protesters around Saudi Arabia and she has also trained other human rights activists. As a result of her activities, she is among the ten most prominent women activists in Saudi Arabia. Because of this, she has been interrogated by police and warned about being too outspoken. When the kingdom held its first municipal council elections in decades in 2015, she ran for office, but authorities reportedly removed her name from the ballot, prohibiting her from running.
In addition to Badawi and Alsada, Saudi officials have arrested Amal al-Harbi, the wife of the imprisoned ACPRA co-founder Fowzan al-Harbi. In contrast to Badawi and Alsada, Amal al-Harbi has not been active in promoting women’s rights or political freedoms. As a result, ADHRB and ESOHR believe that her arrest has more to do with her husband’s human rights and political work rather than her own actions.
The arrests of Badawi and Alsada demonstrate the Saudi government’s campaign of suppressing opposition voices and women’s rights activists continues. In May, officials arrested almost a dozen women and men advocating for human rights and gender equality, including Loujain al-Hathloul, Dr. Aisha al-Mana, Madeha al-Ajroush, Professors Aziza al-Yousef and Iman al-Nafjan, Hessa al-Sheikh, lawyer and Dr. Ibrahim al-Modeimigh, and ACPRA co-founder Mohammed al-Bajadi. In early June, authorities arrested more activists, including prominent women’s rights activist Professor Hatoon al-Fassi, Khalid al-Omair, and ACPRA co-founder Omar al-Saeed.
The driving force behind the arrests is the Presidency of State Security (PSS), a security and intelligence body formed by royal decree in July 2017. The decree de-fangs the Ministry of Interior, previously the government body in charge of domestic security and countering terrorism and responsible for the majority of domestic rights abuses, from arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance to torture and extrajudicial killings – these responsibilities have been transferred to the PSS. The decree empowers the PSS to “focus on the security of the nations, citizens and expatriates and counter terrorism, spying and ideological invasions of any kinds.” The PSS’ mandate to pursue terrorists and prosecute terror crimes was strengthened in the November 2017 Law on Terrorism and Its Financing, which grants the PSS extensive powers. The PSS is overseen directly by the king rather than by a minister-level official, giving the king and crown prince extensive powers over internal security and countering terrorism.
Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB: “The arrests of Samar Badawi and Naseema Alsada are yet another attack on women’s rights activists and human rights defenders, demonstrating Saudi Arabia’s continued suppression of basic, fundamental human rights and gender equality. The international community must make it clear to Saudi Arabia that this ongoing crackdown on peaceful government critics cannot continue. We urge all states to call on Saudi Arabia to immediately release Samar and Naseema and cease their harassment and detention of peaceful critics.”
Ali Adubisi, Executive Director of ESOHR: “The involvement of the Presidency of State Security in the arrests of Samar and Naseema only serve to confirm that the Saudi government’s continued suppression of peaceful activists is sanctioned at the highest levels of government. Their arrests are only possible if King Salman orders or approves of them. Saudi Arabia must immediately reform its domestic security apparatus to ensure that women’s rights activists and human rights defenders are protected rather than targeted. Furthermore, the international community must make it clear to King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that the continued arrests of activists and peaceful critics is unacceptable and they must be released.”
ADHRB and ESOHR call for the immediate release of Samar Badawi and Naseema Alsada and the dropping of any, and all, charges against them. We further call on the Saudi government to release all human rights defenders, women’s rights activists, and all political activists.