UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention calls for immediate release of Saudi women’s rights activists Salma al-Shehab and Nourah al-Qahtani

July 07, 2023

Following a complaint submitted by ALQST for Human Rights, Democracy for the Arab World, Freedom Initiative, Human Rights Foundation and MENA Rights Group, the UNWGAD issued an Opinion qualifying the detention of Saudi activists Salma al-Shehab and Nourah al-Qahtani as arbitrary and in violation of international human rights standards.

Today, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) released a decision on the cases of Salma al-Shehab and Nourah al-Qahtani. It finds their detention to be arbitrary and calls for their immediate release. 

On 9 August 2022, Saudi courts sentenced al-Shehab and al-Qahtani to 34 and 45 years in prison to be followed by a travel ban of the same length, under a range of charges under the counter-terrorism law in connection to tweets in support of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Al-Shehab was later re-sentenced to 27 years.

Last year, five organisations representing the two women — ALQST for Human Rights, Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), Freedom Initiative, Human Rights Foundation, and MENA Rights Group — submitted a complaint the UNWGAD and requested the group of experts to issue an Opinion on their cases. 

In its Opinion, the UNWGAD found that the Saudi government had failed to establish a legal basis for the arrest and detention of al-Shehab and al-Qahtani.

Prior to her arrest, Salma al-Shehab had been vocal on Twitter in her support for human rights and women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia. She was charged with “undermining public order” and “destabilising the security of society and the stability of the state”, and sentenced to six years in prison. Her sentence was later increased to 34 years based on vague anti-terrorism legislation, before being reduced to 27 years.

As for Nourah al-Qahtani, she had been active on Twitter through two anonymous accounts, on which she advocated for human rights in her country, called for the release of political detainees and criticised human rights abuses committed by the Saudi authorities. The Saudi Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) ​​found her guilty of “preparing, sending and storing information, through the internet, seeking to harm public order”, and “seeking to disturb the social fabric, national unity, the societal cohesion and basic laws.”

Considering both women were charged for merely tweeting in support of human rights and women’s rights, the UNWGAD further explained that the detention of the two women “resulted from the peaceful exercise of their rights or freedoms guaranteed under articles 19 and 21 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

The Working Group also found that al-Shehab was initially denied access to legal counsel and was held in a secret location for 13 days. In fact, both al-Shehab and al-Qahtani’s trials were held in a closed session before the SCC. They were both sentenced to severe and disproportionate punishments and the UNWGAD considered that their right to a fair trial was violated. 

The UNWGAD further concluded that al-Shehab’s and al-Qahtani’s treatment and disproportionate sentences indicate “that they were discriminated against for their human rights activism and for sharing their views peacefully on social media, as well as on the basis of gender and religion in the case of Ms. Al-Shehab.” In fact, al-Shehab was verbally harassed by officials for belonging to the Shi’a religious minority.

Therefore, the group of UN experts finally concluded that their detention was in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, rendering it arbitrary.

In the Opinion, the UNWGAD requested that Saudi authorities “take the steps necessary to remedy the situation of Ms. al-Shehab and Ms. al-Qahtani without delay,” specifically that they release the women immediately and provide reparations, in accordance with international law. The UNWGAD also urged Saudi Arabia to conduct an independent investigation regarding the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of both women, and to hold those responsible for the violation of their rights accountable.

Finally, the Opinion requested that the Saudi government “revise its laws, particularly the Anti-Terrorism Law, to meet the requirements of due process and a fair trial, in conformity  with the findings in the present opinion and with its obligations under international law.”

The Working Group now awaits a response from the Saudi authorities informing them of actions taken to implement the aforementioned recommendations.

The representing organisations welcome the UNWGAD’s Opinion and strongly echo their conclusion that the detention of Salma al-Shehab and Nourah al-Qahtani are both arbitrary and violate international human rights standards. Furthermore, we reiterate the Working Group’s call on Saudi Arabia to immediately release both victims and to revise its draconian Anti-Terrorism Law, in accordance with international human rights standards.

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