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The Death Penalty for Peaceful Protest?

The topic of human rights can pose complicated questions. Recently, it has produced increasingly complex answers. Whilst human rights are universal in the sense that everyone has their own fundamental rights, their implementation and challenges at domestic level differ. The reasoning for this is clear; many societies have specific views of particular issues, systemic anomalies or constitutional and political methods to address those issues when they arise. There is, however, some consensus on a worldwide scale as to what amounts to a 'fundamental right'. Arguably, the rights to: free expression, association and assembly are amongst those that can be classified as 'fundamental'. For those who reside in Europe, these rights are found within the European Convention of Human Rights as Articles 10 and 11. There are further international conventions that grant these rights, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This group of rights permits individuals to assert their rights and to express or share their opinions in a free manner, without the need to worry that these rights will curbed unnecessarily by their government. This is assuming that such expressions do not fall within the exceptions in the second half of each provision.

In some jurisdictions, the battle to obtain fundamental human rights rages on. In many regards, Saudi Arabia is one such arena of the struggle. Human rights in Saudi Arabia are based on Islamic religious laws, which are in turn, under absolute rule of the Saudi royal family. It ought to be noted that the strict regime in Saudi has consistently ranked among the worst in Freedom House's annual survey of political and civil rights. The current human rights regime, or what little regime there is in Saudi Arabia, has been subject to consistent criticism. Recent examples of fundamental failures to protect human rights in Saudi Arabia include: the arrest of lawyers who criticised the government via Twitter (although later overturned); formerly forbidding women from driving (this issue has been addressed); and public gatherings being prohibited under an order issued by the Interior Ministry in 2011. These examples are merely the top layer of systemic failure to respect individual rights. Amnesty International, a Human Rights Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) has provided a comprehensive insight into Saudi Arabia and its human rights issues which can be found here.

The use of capital punishment further compounds these concerns, raising the question of whether those sentenced to death have done anything that could justifiably receive such a sentence. Saudi Arabia does have one of the world’s highest rates of execution. Those convicted of: terrorism, murder, rape, armed robbery, and/or drug trafficking face the death penalty as a potential sentence.

Most recently a female human rights activist, Israa Al-Ghomgham, was detained. Ms Al-Ghomgham will be tried in the country’s terrorism tribunal even though charges brought against her relate to peaceful activism. As a result of the charges, prosecutors in Saudi Arabia are seeking the death penalty. The acts that Israa al-Ghomgham faces the death penalty for include: 'Participating in protests, chanting slogans hostile to the regime, attempting to inflame public opinion and filming protests and publishing on social media.' One may find it difficult to imagine how such actions could amount to criminal activity when considering other jurisdictions. Further, one can question whether Israa Al-Ghomgham’s acts of political expression fall into such the same category as, for example, murder. It should be noted that whilst women have been executed in Saudi Arabia, Al-Ghomgham is the first woman who is faced with the prospect of execution for political activism.

This news is incredibly damaging to the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The prince had attempted to promote himself as being in favour of reform to the system in Saudi Arabia and had pledged to rein in religious extremists, diversify Saudi's oil dependent economy, as well as liberalising what is seen to be an extensively conservative order. Whilst there has been some success, such as economic reform and an anti-corruption drive which resulted in the imprisonment of very powerful royal relatives, much remains to be done. Saudi Arabia has been at the centre of controversy many times, as documented by the Human Rights Watch's 2018 World Report. This includes the Yemen airstrikes and blockade. Unfortunately, it appears that the positive developments in the economic and social sphere have resulted in the crown prince tightening his grip on total political power. This has generated fears that this is the beginning of a dictator-like leadership.

The detention of human rights activists is symptomatic of significant unease within the region. In Saudi Arabia, there are concerns regarding the use of systematic discrimination. The basis of this falls within the division of Sunni and Shia citizens (both of which are variant branches of the Islamic faith). Those of a Shia faith face many obstacles in Saudi, notably: when seeking work and education and restrictions on religious practice. There has been an increase in mass protest within the region by Shia Muslims, which initially started during the Arab spring, potentially caused by the restrictions on their day-to-day lives.

The issues that Saudi Arabia has created also appear at an international level. Tensions have arisen between Saudi and Canada, resulting in a stand off between the two. Ties with Canada have been cut by Saudi as a result of a call for the release of two jailed activists by Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister, Chrystia Freeland. The consequences of this saw the Canadian ambassador expelled from Saudi, Saudi scholarship students being implored to leave Canada and a new trade and investment agreement being suspended. In the most recent turn of events, Ms Freeland publicly voiced concerns about a jailed women’s rights activist in Saudi Arabia. These developments could have a knock-on effect, which may impact other States. Germany and Sweden have also received criticism for alleged censorship. The news from Saudi, arguably, appears to join a running theme with many countries that are not fully developed in the field of human rights. Newell Legal's Interim Deputy Editor, Ifeanyi Okereafor, has previously reported on the crackdown on dissent within the African jurisdiction.

It is apparent that the current human rights climate in Saudi Arabia is far from desirable. It has raised concerns from the United Nations over the possible abuse of counter-terrorism laws. The developments surrounding Israa Al-Ghomgham's arrest and upcoming trial are indicative of the State's failure to protect fundamental human rights. Despite pressure from the international community, the crown prince has not yet yielded to such requests and it seems he does not intend to. However, some form of negotiation between Saudi Arabia and the wider international community, perhaps the UN, may produce positive results. This would not be a speedy process, owing to the amount of detail required, but it would be a step in the right direction.

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