By Rodney Dixon
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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”