Below is an interview with Ali Adubisi, Director of the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights,  which is  currently working on defending  Israa al-Ghomgham.  Al-Ghomgham has been in pretrial detention in Saudi Arabia for the past three years and might be sentenced to death for her peaceful activism.   Her next court date will be on October 28, 2018.  All human rights and women’s rights activists need to express their solidarity with  al-Ghomgham, and  fellow activists who have been arrested and are suffering in Saudi prisons, awaiting their trials.   

Q: Can you tell us about the recent wave of arrests against women activists in Saudi Arabia?

A: Starting in May 2018, there are many women being arrested. This is coming after women started driving cars in Saudi Arabia. The government started arresting women activists because they don’t want the women to think that gaining the right to drive cars means they will start claiming other rights for themselves. First they arrested Hadlool, Aziz Alyousef, Iman Najah, some of them are released now. SamarBadawi, Nassimah al-Sadah and another woman, which we don’t have information about, are among those who are still arrested. Fatma Seif was also arrested in 2016.The Saudi government will continue arresting other women and they will try to do this in secret. They’ve been threatening the families not to speak, which helps the government to control the media coverage.

Israa al-Ghomghamwas arrested in 2015 together with Naeem Almaghrood.  Women are asking for different basic rights, like the right to drive cars, which they got  already. They are also asking for the ending of the guardianship system.

Q: What is the guardianship system?

A: The Guardianship system is a system in which  a woman doesn’t have any legal rights and  needs a man for doing anything, for education, for work, for traveling out of Saudi Arabia etc. Sometime for doing basic things in a governmental bureau or office, you need a man, your father or your husband or your son. You need a man to help you solve and process your basic needs.

Q: So how much you know about Israa? What did she basically do?

A: Israa participated in a protest which started in 2011, there are a lot of different demands in these protests, civilian rights, political rights, freedom of expression, and also demands about the release of human rights activists from prison. Social media activists have also been expressing their opinions online.

Q: Is Israa a writer too?

A: Yes she writes in social media.

Q: in Arabic?

A: yes in Arabic.

Q: So you knew her?

A: I know her from before.

Q: Before her arrest?

A: Before her arrest, but not by the name, by her username in social media.

Q: And what did she write about?

A: She wrote about the protests. She was active in organizing protests and raising awareness about people’s rights. She also wrote about the ways in  which we can empower ourselves in order to continue our struggle.

Q: So do you consider her a political activist or a women’s rights activist?

A: She is a human rights defender. She’s asking for rights not only for women, she’s also concerned with general rights. She is not part of any political party. Of course, we don’t even have these things in Saudi Arabia.  We don’t have the freedom to organize political parties, groups or societies. At the moment,  people are self-mobilizing.

Q: Did she criticize the king directly or not?

A: I’m not sure but I think in general, in the protest, there was a slogan about the king and about the princess. Other slogans asked for changing or reforming the system.

Q: As far as I know she is from the East side of Saudi Arabia, which is mostly Shi’a oriented. Do you consider her having any leaning towards Shi’ism or  would you just call her a Saudi activist?

A: In Saudi Arabia, in any city, for any group of people, there are special demands and there are also general demands. In the 2011 protest in Qatif city, people including Israa have been asking for all kinds of rights: civic and political rights. And in between,  they’ve been asking specifically for  the release of prisoners in Qatif.   Qatif is one of the cities which has been demanding rights for all. You will not find such broad determination in any city in Saudi Arabia.

Q: Why not?

A: There are other cities and other communities protesting and demanding rights, but you will not find them for example asking for the general rights of all communities, especially when we come to the rights of the Shi’a communities.  But in Qatif you will find everything, people ask for every right.

Q: Why do you think this protest happened in Qatif and East side of Saudi Arabia but not in other parts?

A: Protests did take place in other places, but in Qatif they continued because in Qatif people have a culture of protesting in their history. In 1979 or 1980, when the Iran’s revolution was happening, there was a protest in Qatif also. I’m not sure if this protest in Qatif was linked to the the revolution in Iran or not, I’m not sure which one was first and which one came after. This was an important period in Qatif city. Protest and revolution are nothing new for the Qatifi people. They have a long history of struggle.

Q: Is Qatif  a revolutionary city?

A: Yes. That means when the Arab spring started in 2011, there was a precedence. Also, like other  communities in Saudi Arabia,  they are under intense repression from the government. . For that reason they mobilized with the Arab Spring in 2011. As you know in 2011 there were protests in most of Arab countries in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, but also in Saudi Arabia.

Q: In Qatif, there was also a Sheikh involved in the protests. How much was Israa part of that? Or supportive of the Sheikh?

A: You mean Sheikh Nimr.   Actually, the role of Sheikh Nimr in this protest was not central.

People, mainly the youth, started protesting by themselves. And when this protest started growing, Sheikh Nimr started supporting the people demanding their rights. He protested when the government started attacking the protestors. Yes he was an important figure, but he was not the initiator of the protests. Once the government started attacking the people and killing them in the streets, he stood with the people and came under government’s attention. Eventually the government arrested him and beheaded him in 2016.

Q: I don’t know how much you know about the fact that the Iranian state wanted to use Sheikh Nimr.

A: No. No one could use Sheikh Nimr.

Q: Yes, I also read that his followers rejected this claim.

A: He was totally independent. I know specific details about Sheikh Nimr, no one used him, no one gave him money, or asked him do this or do that. Before his arrest he had the chance to leave Saudi Arabia, but he didn’t. It was totally his own choice and he knew that he would be killed. He wrote a  few articles about Alshahadat [martyrdom] in which he stated that  if he continued [supporting the protests], he would be killed by this government. So he was aware of the danger he was facing.

Q: As far as I know Israa comes from a poor family. Why did  the family  not at least give people a proper photo of her.  We don’t have a photo of her.  The photo of her in the news reports is from when she was ten or twelve years old.

A: Israa wears niqab.

Q: So she is religious?

A: Women in Qatif city wear niqab in general.  A few years,  some women started uncovering their faces.

Q: Do you think that it’s her choice not to give a proper photo? Or is that the family’s decision?

A: In general it’s very difficult to contact her family.  Many people around the world  know about her case.  The police asked her father to report to the police for an investigation.  They accused him first of collecting money without permission.  He is a poor man and had asked  for money for an attorney. The government told him that he was not allowed to collect money without permission from the government. Then they also told him that he had  harmed the image of the government because he spoke about Israa’s case. And finally he was forced to sign a document vowing that he would no longer speak about this case with anyone.

Q: What do you think will happen to Israa?

A: With this government,  anything is possible.

Q: What we can do to reduce the danger at least?

A:  If there is support for her, legal support, for example an alliance of lawyers, that could do everything for her and communicate with the media, with the government, with the human rights council, the head of commissioner’s office, such a mechanism would be very important in saving Israa.

Q: Who is her husband?

A: Mousa al-Hashem

Q: He is an activist too?

A: Yes.

Q: Also a political activist?

A: He is a photographer.  Combines photography and protest.  He covers his face with a  mask and uses his camera in protest.

Q: I read that Israa was documenting the protests also. For where?

A: She recorded the protests in order to send the records to the media, or to other activists.

Q: External media or internal?

A: Both.

Q: Under her own name?

A: I don’t know exactly, I don’t know the details, but there are a lot of different groups of people in the protests.  They all publish on social media. Israa was one of the people that was active.

Q: What is her education?

A: I don’t know exactly.

Q: How did she come to the attention of securities in Saudi Arabia.

A: After the protests started, the government first arrested a lot of men. Then the women became more active than men for some time, especially in 2014 and 2015.  The government realized that the protests were still continuing because the women were becoming more active. The government realized that it needs to start arresting women. They started with  Israa and her colleague Naimeh Almadrol.

All human rights and women’s rights activists need to  express their solidarity with Israa, Samar, Nasimeh and their other fellow activists who were arrested and are waiting for their trials in Saudi prisons.

Interview conducted by Fatemeh Masjedi and Sina Zekavat.,  members of the Alliance for Middle East Socialists.

For more information,  see