A Saudi court sentenced two women to ten months in prison, along with a two-year travel ban, after they tried to help a Canadian woman who, with her three children, was denied adequate food and water and was subjected to violence by her Saudi husband.
On June 6 2011, the two human rights workers Wajeha al-Huwaider and Fawzia al-Oyouni received a text message from Nathalie Morin, the Canadian woman, saying that her husband had locked the whole family in the house and left for a week-long visit to see relatives in another town while her supplies of food and water were running out, according to Human Rights Watch.
“I cannot help myself and I have no rights in Saudi Arabia. My children are hungry and I cannot do anything to feed them. I’m fighting to get freedom, justice and fairness for my family including myself,” Morin wrote on her blog.
The two bought food and came to Morin’s house, where police were already waiting for them. The women were brought to Damman station for questioning, where police told al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni they believed they were trying to smuggle Morin and her three children to Canada, Human Rights Center reports.
After the women signed a statement pledging to cease all involvement with the case, the police released them. However, more than a year later in July 2012, authorities called in al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni for questioning, after which the government launched a case against them.
The trial continued for another year, and last Saturday presiding judge Fahad al-Gda’a issued a ruling sentencing the two human rights workers to ten months in prison, imposing an additional two-year travel ban on top of the jail time. The charges were “inciting a woman to flee with her children” and “attempting to turn a woman against her husband.” The women were acquitted of charges that they had attempted to smuggle the wife and her three children to the Canadian Embassy in Riyadh.
A Saudi court convicted two Saudi women’s rights activists on June 15, 2013, for trying to help a woman flee the country. Wajeha al-Huwaider and Fawzia al-Oyouni were each sentenced to 10 months in prison and two-year travel bans.
Al-Huwaider, a member of the Human Rights Watch Middle East advisory committee, told Human Rights Watch that she believes authorities pursued this case to punish her for unrelated women’s rights activism over the last 10 years. Al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni said they intend to appeal their convictions.
“Saudi authorities are using the courts to send a message that they won’t tolerate any attempt to alleviate the dismal status of women’s rights in the kingdom,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Saudi authorities should immediately drop this case and stop harassing Saudi women who call for reform.”
Al-Huwaider told Human Rights Watch that her and al-Oyouni’s involvement with the Canadian woman began in 2009, when she received messages from Johanne Durocher, the woman’s mother, who is in Canada, pleading for activists to help her daughter, Natalie Morin. Morin is married to a Saudi citizen, Sa’eed al-Shahrani, and lives with him and their three children in the Eastern Province city of Dammam.
Durocher told them that al-Shahrani, a former police officer, was abusing Morin by locking her in their house and denying her adequate food and water. Durocher had helped draw international media attention to the case in 2009 by lobbying Canadian government officials to intervene and organizing protests over the case in Canada.
Al-Huwaider said that she and al-Oyouni organized several trips by other activists to deliver food and supplies to the woman, but that they did not attempt to visit Morin until the afternoon of June 6, 2011, when they received distressed messages from Morin herself. The messages said that Morin’s husband had left for a week-long visit to see relatives in another town and that her supplies of food and water were running out. When al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni approached the house to offer assistance they were confronted by police who were apparently waiting for them to arrive. The officers immediately arrested them and took them to a Damman police station for questioning.
Police released al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni after midnight on June 7, after they signed a statement pledging to cease all involvement with the case and to allow the government-affiliated National Human Rights Commission and Canadian Embassy to investigate. The Damman branch of the National Commission on Human Rights declined to intervene, stating that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that al-Shahrani was mistreating Morin and their children. Canadian government officials have maintained since 2009 that this case is a private matter that must be resolved by Saudi authorities.
(Beirut) – The harsh sentences against leading Saudi rights advocates and an order to shutter a civil and political rights group are major setbacks for rights in Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities should release and drop charges against the two leading human rights activists sentenced to long prison terms after a Specialized Criminal Court convicted them on politically-motivated charges on Saturday.
The activists, Mohammed al-Qahtani and Abdulla al-Hamid, are co-founders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), a rights organization that has called for greater civil rights in the kingdom. They faced charges including “destabilizing security by calling for protests,” “spreading false information to outside sources,” “undermining national unity,” and “setting up an illegal human rights organization.” The two activists have been sentenced solely for their peaceful advocacy of reform and criticism of human rights violations.
“This is simply an outrageous case, which shows the extremes Saudi authorities are prepared to go to silence moderate advocates of reform and greater respect for human rights”, said Eric Goldstein, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. “The Saudi authorities should immediately release al-Qatani and al-Hamid, drop the charges against them, and end political trials before the Specialized Criminal Court.”
The Specialized Criminal Court began trying the two activists in June 2012. At first, their trials were separate and they were conducted behind closed doors, like most other trials before the Specialized Criminal Court. The judge, however, decided to merge the two cases after their first sessions. The trial continued on camera until the fifth and last session, when the judge finally opened the proceedings and allowed the presence of media, lawyers, and rights activists, who attended in the presence of members of the security forces.
At the final session on Saturday, according to Sabq newspaper, the judge read through the charges at length and likened the activists’ beliefs to those of terrorists, claiming that “calling for a change of the name of the kingdom cannot possibly be reformist.” The newspaper also reported that presiding judge Hammad al-Omar told al-Hamid, after he remarked on the lack of independence of the court, not to question the validity of the sentences, warning him that “judges may add what crimes they deem necessary to the charge list.”
- Saudi Arabia: Women get jail terms for trying to help Canadian leave Saudi husband (iranaware.com)
- Fights for women’s suffrage outside the West (independent.co.uk)
- Saudi political inmates on hunger strike (rinf.com)