(Beirut) – A Saudi court convicted two Saudi women’s rights activists on June 15, 2013, for inciting a woman against her husband. Wajeha al-Huwaider and Fawzia al-Oyouni were each sentenced to 10 months in prison and two-year travel bans.
Al-Huwaider, a member of the Human Rights Watch Middle East advisory committee, told Human Rights Watch that she believes authorities pursued this case to punish her for unrelated women’s rights activism over the last 10 years. Al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni said they intend to appeal their convictions.
“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.”
Al-Huwaider told Human Rights Watch that her and al-Oyouni’s involvement with the Canadian woman began in 2009, when she received messages from Johanne Durocher, the woman’s mother, who is in Canada, pleading for activists to help her daughter, Natalie Morin. Morin is married to a Saudi citizen, Sa’eed al-Shahrani, and lives with him and their three children in the Eastern Province city of Dammam.
Durocher told them that al-Shahrani, a former police officer, was abusing Morin by locking her in their house and denying her adequate food and water. Durocher had helped draw international media attention to the case in 2009 by lobbying Canadian government officials to intervene and organizing protests over the case in Canada.
Al-Huwaider said that she and al-Oyouni organized several trips by other activists to deliver food and supplies to the woman, but that they did not attempt to visit Morin until the afternoon of June 6, 2011, when they received distressed messages from Morin herself. The messages said that Morin’s husband had left for a week-long visit to see relatives in another town and that her supplies of food and water were running out. When al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni approached the house to offer assistance they were confronted by police who were apparently waiting for them to arrive. The officers immediately arrested them and took them to a Damman police station for questioning.
The police told al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni that they believed they had gone to Morin’s home to help her and her three children, all Canadian citizens, to escape to Canada.
Police released al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni after midnight on June 7, after they signed a statement pledging to cease all involvement with the case and to allow the government-affiliated Human Rights Commission and Canadian Embassy to investigate. The Damman branch of the Human Righs Commission declined to intervene, stating that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that al-Shahrani was mistreating Morin and their children. Canadian government officials have maintained since 2009 that this case is a private matter that must be resolved by Saudi authorities.
Morin remains in Saudi Arabia with her husband and children, but describes herself as a “hostage” and complains of neglect. On her personal blog she regularly pleads for the Canadian government to help get passports for her children so that they can leave the country. On June 17 she wrote a blog entry condemning the convictions of al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni, stating there is no evidence for the charges against them.
Al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni assumed that authorities would not pursue charges against them, but in July 2012, more than a year later, authorities called them in for questioning and informed them that they would refer the case to court.
Al-Huwaider said that during her 2012 questioning sessions investigators did not ask her about Morin’s case but rather 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. Al-Huwaider was in the car with al-Sharif and filmed the YouTube video of the incident that was widely viewed. Al-Huwaider said that Saudi authorities also asked her about a 2006 women’s rights protest she organized on the King Fahd causeway, which connects Saudi Arabia with Bahrain, as well as her 2009 attempt to cross to Bahrain without the approval of a male guardian.
Al-Huwaider told Human Rights Watch that during her trial, which began in late 2012, the presiding judge denied her and al-Oyouni the right to adequately defend themselves by refusing to allow Morin to testify. The judge also declined to allow a Canadian Embassy official to attend the second trial session, in December.
In Saudi Arabia, which has no written penal code, judges and prosecutors have wide latitude to arbitrarily define certain acts as criminal behavior and then argue that defendants committed these “crimes.” The charge against al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni is “inciting a woman against her husband.”
Saudi Arabia’s “guardianship system” and strict gender segregation rules severely limit women’s ability to take part in public life. Under this discriminatory system, girls and women are forbidden from traveling, conducting official business, or undergoing certain medical procedures without permission from their male guardians. All women remain banned from driving in Saudi Arabia.
Under the United Nations General Assembly’s Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, Resolution A/RES/53/144 of 1998, Saudi Arabia has the responsibility to “conduct prompt and impartial investigations of alleged violations of human rights” and to protect human rights defenders from “threats, retaliation, adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action” as a result of their rights advocacy.
“Rather than persecute two human rights defenders for trying to help a woman in distress, Saudi Arabia should investigate Morin’s allegations and uphold women’s right to freedom of movement,” Stork said.