LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A court in Saudi Arabia has convicted two Saudi women’s rights activists on charges of 'inciting a woman against her husband', Human Rights Watch (HRW) said this week.
Wajeha al-Huwaider and Fawzia al-Oyouni were each sentenced to 10 months in prison and received two-year travel bans, the U.S.-based rights group said in a statement.
“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.”
In Saudi Arabia, which has no written penal code, judges and prosecutors can determine that certain acts constitute crimes, and then argue that defendants committed such crimes, HRW said.
“The charges under which the judge convicted al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni violate the right to freedom of movement, which Saudi Arabia pledged to uphold in 2009 when it acceded to the Arab Charter on Human Rights,” HRW said in a statement.
Al-Huwaider told HRW that she believes the Saudi authorities are punishing her for her involvement in women’s rights activism over the last 10 years, adding that both she and al-Oyouni will appeal the sentence.
In 2009, the two activists got involved in the case of Natalie Morin, a Canadian citizen married to a Saudi national who allegedly abused her by locking her in their house and denying her adequate food and water.
Al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni were asked by Morin’s mother Johanne Durocher – who lives in Canada – to help her daughter, who has had three children with husband Sa’eed al-Shahrani, according to HRW.
The rights group said the two female activists had organised several trips by other activists to deliver food and supplies to the woman. The two women visited her for the first time on 6 June, 2011, when a distressed Morin got in touch with them after being left alone in the house with not enough water and food supplies by her husband who had gone away for a week-long trip.
When they approached the woman’s house, al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni were arrested by police who suspected they were there to help Morin and her children escape to Canada.
Both were released the following day, after promising to end their involvement in the case.
A Saudi government-led human rights commission later declared there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that Morin’s husband was abusing her, and Canadian officials have said this is a private matter that needs to be resolved by the Saudis – so Morin remains in the country.
More than a year after the episode, the two Saudi activists were called in for questioning by Saudi authorities in July 2012.
Al-Huwaider told HRW that, during the interrogations, she was mainly asked about her involvement with the “Women2Drive” campaign and her relationship with Manal al-Sharif, who defied Saudi law and gained international media attention in May 2011 by driving a car.
The activist told HRW that – during the trial that followed – she and her colleague were denied the right to properly defend themselves. Morin was not allowed to testify and an official from the Canadian Embassy was barred from attending the trial.