06.25.139:02 AM ET

Saudi Women’s-Rights Activists Sentenced

Saudi Arabia has imprisoned two activists for allegedly trying to help a woman leave her abusive husband. David Keyes on why the U.S. must intervene to free them.

Last week two prominent Saudi women’s-rights activists, Wajeha al Huweidar and Fawzia Al-’Ayouni, were sentenced to 10 months in prison and a two-year travel ban for “corrupting” a Canadian woman and allegedly trying to smuggle her out of Saudi Arabia. As one would expect from a theocratic dictatorship, the charges were trumped up and the judicial process laughable. The real aim of the case was harassing two women's-rights activists into silence.

Shortly before her trial, Huweidar told me, “I’m naturally optimistic. I always look on the bright side. Otherwise I couldn't survive in Saudi Arabia. People live in fear here. They don't know when they will be attacked.” Her turn came a week ago as this pioneer, who was among the first women to defy the ban on driving in the kingdom, was sentenced to prison. Her case is a bellwether to see if the West is at all serious about its human-rights rhetoric.

Saudi Arabia poses as a moderate government and stalwart ally of America, but in reality, it is an opponent of Western values, enemy of American ideals, and foe of human rights. The louder the Saudi regime proclaims its commitment to enlightened principles, the more you know it is lying. A few examples.

Last year, to much international fanfare, King Abdullah inaugurated a $20 million-a-year interfaith-dialogue center in Vienna. Back at home, Saudi Arabia remains the single most intolerant country on earth of people of other faiths. Christians and Jews cannot build houses of worship or step foot in an entire city. Young journalists like Hamza Kashgari are imprisoned for criticizing Muhammad on Twitter. People are beheaded for “witchcraft.”

In 2011 the Saudi education minister, Faisal bin Abdullah bin Mohammed, traveled to Atlanta, where he proclaimed that the Saudi educational system was a model for the entire Middle East. But what kind of model teaches eighth-grade students that Jews are “apes” and Christians “swine”? Millions of Saudi children are indoctrinated with this racism in textbooks printed by the Saudi education ministry.

In 2012 the Saudi ambassador to the United Nations, Abdullah Al Mouallami, told students at New York University that his country repressed no one and was a “land of opportunity” for all. When I listed half a dozen prominent Saudi political prisoners, Muallami told me he had never heard of them. The ambassador added that Kashgari’s tweets that insulted God “can never be acceptable” in his country.

Last year King Abdullah claimed that “we refuse to marginalize women in society,” yet his government enforces gender apartheid and arrests women for driving. Under his rule, women are forbidden from leaving the country without a man’s permission. Text messages are automatically sent to male guardians if a woman tries to leave. The king massively funds the religious police, which harasses women if they are not covered head to toe or attempt to walk outside with a nonrelative male.

Many will say these are internal Saudi matters, and Western strategic interests must trump human-rights concerns. In fact, there is a profound connection between internal freedoms and external security and stability. Decades of overlooking human-rights abuses in the Middle East have done little to promote peace or prosperity.

The brilliant Soviet scientist and human-rights hero Andrei Sakharov said it best: “In the end, the moral choice turns out to be also the most pragmatic choice.” Western nations should raise heaven and hell for the release of Saudi women's-rights activists, as much for them as for us.


David Keyes is the executive director of Advancing Human Rights and a co-founder of CyberDissidents.org. He is a contributor to Newsweek and The Daily Beast and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, and many other publications. He can be reached at [email protected]