For years Nassima al-Sadah was at the forefront of the Saudi women’s rights movement, writing columns for the Juhaina news website, and co-founding the human rights organization, Al-Adala.
She filed a lawsuit demanding that women be allowed to participate in elections and campaigned for the right to drive and the end of male guardianships that put control of nearly all aspects of a woman’s life in the hands of a father, husband, or even son.
But for the past two and half years, al-Sadah has been in prison in the city of Dammam. In a trial closed to international observers, the columnist was sentenced in November to nearly six years in prison under Saudi’s cybercrime law, for “communicating with foreign entities hostile to the state” through social media posts.
Al-Sadah was one of several female journalists and activists detained in 2018, as Saudi authorities cracked down on a campaign to allow women to drive. The driving ban was overturned, but many of those detained for protesting it remain behind bars.
One of those, Loujain al-Hathloul, was released in February, bringing some hope that others arrested at the same time would also be set free.
But being released from detention does not guarantee freedom, Saudi activists say.
Strict conditions prevent al-Hathloul from speaking about her experience and ban her from travel. A suspended sentence means she will return to prison if she continues her activism.
If released, al-Sadah would likely face similar restrictions.
“She is handcuffed, anyway, even after release,” Kiran Nazish, an independent journalist and co-founder of the Coalition for Women in Journalism (CFWIJ), told VOA.
The CFWIJ, which runs a support network and advocacy program that reports on threats facing women in journalism, has condemned the state’s treatment of al-Sadah and called for her release, along with an end to the persecution of women activists.
Nazish said she fears the Saudi government will continue to implement levels of control over al-Sadah even after she leaves prison. “There's already a travel ban on her,” Nazish said.
“There's a lot of international pressure on the Saudi government and the Saudi Prince, but we hear nothing back from them,” Nazish said, referring to Mohammed bin Salman, who is widely viewed as the de facto ruler of the kingdom.
The treatment of al-Sadah and other women in Saudi prisons has been criticized by the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and international rights groups.
“These women have been wrongly detained simply for exercising their fundamental rights,” the Foreign Relations Committee wrote in a bi-partisan letter in November.
Amnesty International has also campaigned for the women to be freed. In a report published in 2018, the rights group found accounts of sexual harassment and torture of detained activists, including electric shocks and flogging.
While the release of activist al-Hathloul should be celebrated, it should also “serve as a cautionary tale that much more needs to be done so that those detained unjustly are completely free of the fear of being arrested and detained once again,” Philippe Nassif, advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International USA, told VOA.
“Nassima’s continued detention is proof that the overall policy has not shifted,” he added.
The Saudi embassy did not respond to VOA's requests for comment submitted via its web portal. An email sent to the address listed on its website was returned as a failed delivery.
‘Layers of oppression’
Al-Sadah has been kept in a high security prison and spent a year in solitary confinement, during which she was denied visits from family and her lawyer, the CFWIJ reported.
Her arrest came during a wider restricting of freedoms in Saudi Arabia.
“Since Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman implemented a crackdown on civil society with a particular focus on activists and journalists, Saudi policy has been simple: criticize the Kingdom’s rulers and or its policies and you will land in jail,” Amnesty’s Nassif said.
Saudi authorities use anti-terror or cybercrime legislation to retaliate against journalists who criticize or report on political issues, including accusations of “jeopardizing national unity” or “harming the image” of the state, according to Reporters Without Borders. The country ranks 170 out of 180, where 1 is the most free, on the media watchdog’s World Press Freedom Index.
In Saudi Arabia “there are layers of oppression,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, Saudi activist and research director for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a non-profit organization promoting democracy in the Middle East and North Africa.
“The same government that actually says that it empowers women, it actually cracks down the hardest on women,” Alaoudh told VOA.
The U.S.-based activist and researcher has firsthand experience of the risks for those who criticize the Kingdom. His father is currently in jail, where he could face the death penalty, in a case that Alaoudh believes is related to his own activism.
Nazish of CFWIJ said that when women speak out, the state views them as a threat.
Saudi Arabia “in the religious context, respects women or is supposed to respect women,” Nazish said. “But it does not respect women who speak, or who want to ask for dignity and power.”
Nazish said she believes using cybercrime charges to convict activists like al-Sadah is a tactic by the government to paint them as a threat.
“There's a believability factor when women are in prison in a misogynistic society,” said Nazish. “Most of these men and women in that country believe when the government says this person is against the government, this person is harmful to your country.”
The detention of women like al-Sadah further damages media freedom, Nazish said. “I think targeting a woman journalist is directly related to the targeting of press itself, and the threat to freedom of press and democracy.”