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Secretive Saudi court may soon decide to execute female rights activist Israa al-Ghomgham

Last Updated Oct 23, 2018 11:08 AM EDT

LONDON -- Israa al-Ghomgham, reportedly the first female human rights activist to face a possible death penalty for non-violent protest in Saudi Arabia, is due to appear in the country's secretive anti-terrorism court on October 28.

Saudi Arabia's crackdown on dissent is attracting fresh attention following the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and rights groups are worried about al-Ghomgham's fate resting with the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), which has a history of unfair trials resulting in death sentences.

The SCC was created in 2008 to hear cases against people accused of terrorism. Many of the first people to be accused and tried by the court were alleged al Qaeda operatives involved in attacks in the kingdom.

Around 2010, however, the government started using the court to try protesters and, eventually, human rights advocates, international human rights lawyer Oliver Windridge tells CBS News.

"The definitions that are used for 'terrorism' in Saudi Arabia are broad -- some would say extremely broad, to the point of… allowing almost any kind of action to be defined as terrorism," Windridge says.

Accusations against Israa al-Ghomgham

Al-Ghomgham has been in detention since 2015, when she was arrested for non-violent activism. She has reportedly appeared in court once since then, when the charges against her were presented. The United Nations says she has been denied access to a lawyer.

According to official court documents obtained by CBS News, al-Ghomgham is facing multiple charges which include:

  • Participating in marches meant to "incite strife;"
  • "Providing moral support to rioters" by attending a protester's funeral;
  • Using a false identity to create a Facebook profile;
  • Traveling to Iran to "receive theoretical lessons on how to stir strife and disturbance in Saudi Arabia."

Inside the "Specialized Criminal Court"

Windridge reviewed a 2014 judgment by the SCC to assess the court's compliance with Saudi Arabia's international human rights commitments.

The kingdom is party to a number of human rights regulations, including the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the Arab Charter on Human Rights. Also, as a member of the United Nations, Saudi Arabia is "generally obligated" to respect the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, Windridge says.

The 2014 case Windridge reviewed involved three male activists, one of whom, Mohamed al-Shioukh, was held for nearly two years in pre-trial detention without access to legal representation.

Al-Shioukh said that he was subjected to interrogation techniques including beatings, electric shock and sleep deprivation, according to the judgement Windridge examined. Those techniques would amount to torture, which is banned under international law, and all allegations of torture must be investigated. The SCC not only failed to investigate al-Shioukh's allegations, Windridge says it used a confession gained as a result of the interrogations as the sole evidence to convict him and sentence him to death.

"The Special Criminal Court has implemented the death penalty where there have been what appear to be clear violations of international law, which in and of itself is another breach of international law," Windridge tells CBS News.

Al-Shioukh's case is just one example of many. A student named Mojtaba Nader Abdullah Suwaiket was arrested in 2012 in relation to pro-democracy protests. According to information given to the United Nations, he was never told why he was arrested or given access to a lawyer, and was routinely subjected to torture, including being suspended from his hands and feet, beaten, and burned with cigarettes. He finally confessed to armed disobedience against the king and attacking and injuring security forces and civilians, and was convicted by the SCC and sentenced to death by crucifixion.

Crown prince of reform, or "a dictator"?

A report published by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights earlier this year concluded that Saudi Arabia was misusing its counterterrorism laws to stifle freedom of expression and political dissent in the kingdom.

"Far from a gradual modernisation and improvement of the human rights situation that the government is keen to portray internationally, the true picture seems to be that Saudi Arabia is backsliding into ever more severe political repression," says the report.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has presented himself internationally as a modernizer, shepherding a number of high-profile reforms in the kingdom including giving women the right to drive. But MBS, as the crown prince is commonly known, has also been accused of cracking down on dissent. Many of the women activists who campaigned for greater rights, including the right to drive, have been jailed under his leadership.

Bin Salman "is a dictator. More than anyone before," Saudi human rights activist Yahya Assiri told CBS News. Assiri left Saudi Arabia for Britain in 2014, from where he runs ALQST, an activist group that still operates inside the kingdom.

"Our reformers, our colleagues, our friends, they are behind bars. Their lives are at risk right now. Whoever killed Jamal in the Saudi consulate, they could kill anyone behind bars," Assiri says.

Hope and fear over Israa's fate

Samah Hadid, Amnesty International's Middle East Director of Campaigns, says it is still unclear whether al-Ghomgham's scheduled Oct. 28 court appearance will be "another hearing, or indeed a verdict."

She's hopeful, however, that the increased scrutiny of Saudi Arabia's actions in light of the Khashoggi case might help al-Ghomhgam avoid execution.

"We remain concerned … that the prosecution will continue to call for the death penalty in Israa's case," Hadid says. "We urge the authorities to not resort to that."

"If the world keeps thinking about the money and the contracts and deals with Saudi Arabia and not thinking about the human rights," Assiri says, "everyone will be in trouble, not just us."