Female activist arrested for criticising Saudi Arabia’s normalisation with Israel

A female Saudi activist, who criticised the Kingdom’s normalisation with Israel, has been detained, and could face up to five years in prison, a UK-based rights group said.

Noha al-Balawi has been under detention in the north-western region of Tabuk for more than two weeks, ALQST, a group advocating for human rights in Saudi Arabia, said last Thursday.

According to ALQST, Ms al-Balawi was asked to report to a police station in Tabuk on 23 January 2017, to then be arrested and has remained in custody since.

Saudi authorities reportedly questioned Ms al-Balawi about her social media posts, including a video criticising the Kingdom for normalising ties with Israel, the rights group said.

In the video which has been widely circulated on social media, Ms Balawi said, “Normalisation means accepting the occupation”, in reference to Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestine.

She added: “Let me make it clear; we will never recognise Israel no matter what it will cost us.

“There is not a single benefit for Arabs when we normalise relations with Israel. It only serves the best interests of the Zionist state.”

In recent months, relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel have indeed become warmer, with a flurry of diplomatic and economic activities between Riyadh and Tel Aviv.

ALQST said that Ms al-Balawi was also questioned for calling on the state to allow women to drive.

In September 2017, the Saudi government had already announced that it would allow women to drive starting in June 2018.

According to the report, the investigating officer had referred Ms al-Balawi’s case for trial under the country’s “cybercrime” law.

Article 6 of the law states that a person “who creates or transmits anything prejudicial to public order” could face up to five years in jail, and/or a fine of up to $800,000 (£575,000).

ALQST said Saudi authorities are trying to deflect public interest into Ms al-Balawi’s case by denying that she is in detention.

Earlier this week, ALQST said Saudi authorities had promised to release Ms al-Balawi after five days. Instead, they have kept her for the past 18 days.

The group said Ms al-Balawi’s detention is an “obvious attempt” to silence public opinion and dissenting views.

ALQST added that Ms al-Balawi’s activism “is legitimate civil and human rights work”, and that authorities “have no right to arrest, detain or punish her for such activity”.

It is calling for al-Balawi’s “immediate and unconditional release”, and for authorities to “restore” her social media accounts so she could continue expressing her opinions.

It remains unclear if and when Ms al-Balawi will be tried in court, and which court will take up her case.

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