Saudi Arabia Seeks the Death Penalty for Female ActivistSaudi Arabia, which has one of the highest execution rates in the world, is taking the rare step of seeking the death penalty for a 29-year-old female activist accused of encouraging demonstrations for greater rights for the Shiite Muslim minority, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch said.
The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has presented himself abroad as a reformer who is working to loosen some of the kingdom’s strict moral codes and to liberalize its economy. But an inconsistent approach to human rights and the rule of law has undermined his efforts.
Most executions in Saudi Arabia are by beheading, a method used to kill 48 people over a four-month period this year.
Saudi Arabia has executed many women, and Shiite activists convicted of terrorism or political crimes have been sentenced to death as well. But calls for capital punishment for a woman in a case of nonviolent political crime are highly unusual.
The case “sets a dangerous precedent for other women activists currently behind bars,” Human Rights Watch said in a report it released on Tuesday.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The woman at the center of the case, Israa al-Ghomgham, is one of six Shiites in the predominantly Sunni kingdom who have been charged with fomenting protests in the Qatif area of Eastern Province, home to a high concentration of Shiites and the site of sporadic street protests against what many call systematic discrimination.
The charges against the six include participating in protests, chanting slogans hostile to the regime, attempting to inflame public opinion, filming protests and publishing on social media and providing moral support to rioters. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for five of the six, including Ms. Ghomgham.
Saudi Arabia recently arrested about a dozen female activists who had campaigned for the right to drive, and their detention was notable because it occurred as King Salman and his dominant adviser, the crown prince, were loosening restrictions on female drivers.
The arrests of the female activists appeared to be intended to reinforce the notion that any overhauls must come as gifts from the monarch, rather than as a response to grass-roots activists or independent advocates.
Ms. Ghomgham, whom Human Rights Watch described as a well-known advocate of equal rights for Shiites, faces accusations related to that activism, not for work with women’s rights.
She and her husband were arrested in a night raid on their home on Dec. 6, 2015, and she has been in jail since. She now faces trial in the kingdom’s Specialized Criminal Court, which was set up in 2008 to try terrorism cases. The court has drawn criticism from rights advocates, who say it severely limits the rights of criminal defendants.
In 2014, the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced to death eight Shiite activists, including the prominent cleric Nimr al-Nimr, for participating in protests inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. The court sentenced 14 others to death for similar reasons in 2016.
Mr. Nimr and three other Shiites were beheaded in January 2016 in a mass execution of 47 people.
The crown prince, who pledged to liberalize the economy as well as social codes, oversaw the detention in November of hundreds of wealthy businessmen on undisclosed corruption charges, seeking to force them to surrender assets in exchange for their freedom.
He had said he hoped to attract investment to help diversify the Saudi economy, which is almost entirely dependent on oil. Instead, the secretive and arbitrary character of the detentions prompted many Saudi and international investors to move large amounts of money out of the kingdom.