False Progress: Bin Salman’s Social Blockade Against Human Rights Activism

By Attiya Latif, Government Relations Intern, Amnesty International USA

On March 20, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman swept into the White House amidst a flurry of press attention. The young prince’s decision to overturn the decades-long ban against women driving in Saudi Arabia granted him global adoration, mild suspicion, and the pomp and glitter befitting a young reformer positioned to enact change in his country. He sat down with US President Donald J. Trump to discuss his Vision 2030 plan for social and economic progress and accepted praise as Trump stated in a fatherly manner, “you are more than the crown prince now.”

Yet this bright, exciting new champion of progress stood in stark contrast to the grim arrests made in the dark of night by his authorities just weeks before the driving ban was set to be lifted on June 24. On the evening of May 15, Saudi authorities arrived at the homes of six well-known women’s rights activists who had been fighting vocally against the driving ban and arrested them without charge, whisking them away in the evening to an uncertain and arbitrary detention. The number of arrests has since grown to over 17, with just 8 released.

While Salman’s officials have since enacted a smear campaign on social media and claimed that the activists are traitors to their nation and “Agents of Embassies,” who were guilty of “contact with foreign entities with the aim of undermining the country’s stability and social fabric,” any evidential backing remains absent. The arrest of activists whose central work lay in undoing the ban against women drivers sends a not-so-reformist threat to activists excited by Saudi progress: that such progress happens only when the Prince and his officials dole it out.

Such a sentiment is clear in previous arrests and treatment of women human rights defenders who refused to keep silent in their grassroots attempts to point out the flaws in Saudi laws. Protesters against the driving ban such as Iman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef participated in decrying the driving ban in 2013; their activism resulted in harassment and interrogation “for their human rights work and activism for women’s rights in the country.” After the driving ban’s removal was announced in September, Saudi Arabian court officials passed along warnings to activists working on the driving ban: after the decision was announced, “officials in the royal court specifically warned women human rights defenders to remain silent and told them not to give media interviews or post on social media.”

The Crown Prince’s desire to posture as a reformer-hero falls short at his decision to silence and crack down on human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia. Whether the intention of his actions is to save the credit of such progress for his Vision 2030 platform, to appease right wing political pressure, the systematic persecution of those who exercise the right to speak out is a step in the wrong direction and will stagger any further progress.

UN Reports demonstrate the potential such actions have to create a social blockade against progress. In a five-day official “inspection of the country at the invitation of the government,” inspectors found that “Those who peacefully exercise their right to freedom of expression are systematically persecuted in Saudi Arabia…many languish in prison for years. Others have been executed in blatant miscarriages of justice.” Such persecution creates a ripple affect of fear that silences any who would attempt to follow in the footsteps of other activists and pursue public action. Inspectors characterized the environment as a “culture of impunity [that] prevails for public officials who are guilty of acts of torture and other ill-treatment. Peaceful avenues for redress of grievances are foreclosed by the use of repressive measures to silence civil society.”

Overturning the driving ban is a true victory for women in Saudi Arabia and a step in the right direction; yet the treatment of activists whose work revolves around overturning this driving ban has a chilling affect on activism in Saudi Arabia and sends a message that no society should permit the enforcement of: freedom of expression is not secure, and basic human rights are not protected.

This disruption to progress raises a clear alarm bell for the international community that so recently was lauding the young reformer prince. Yet the United States government has remained silent on the issue of the detained human rights defenders. This silence parallels a previous restraint from the US in 2013, when activists from the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association were detained and put on trial for abstract acts of disloyalty to the country- and again, US government officials remained silent.

US government officials must change their old precedent and push for the immediate and unconditional release of these human rights defenders. As a main ally of the United States, Saudi Arabia stands at a unique position to receive feedback and pressure from the United States. If no action is taken, Saudi’s prince may tout his plans for progress, but can continue to deny his citizens access to freedom of expression, will disrupt the path towards further progress for Saudi women.

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