U.S. lawyers "paying attention" as female Saudi activist Israa al-Ghomgham due in court

By Haley Ott

/ CBS News

Saudi Arabia seeks death penalty for activist

Female human rights activist Israa al-Ghomgham could be the first woman even sentenced to death for nonviolent protest in Saudi Arabia on Sunday. It's a case human rights lawyers say "may well constitute multiple violations of international human rights law."

Al-Ghomgham is one of six Saudi human rights defenders standing trial at the country's infamous Specialized Criminal Court. Five of them are facing possible death sentences. The court has a history of unfair trials resulting in executions.

An October 28 hearing for al-Ghomgham was canceled without explanation and not rescheduled. While similar hearings are often postponed, rights groups called the handling of al-Ghomgham's case "unusual" at the time, and said it could be due to increased scrutiny of the kingdom after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Israa al-Ghomgham's case

Al-Ghomgham has been in detention since 2015, when she was arrested for activism related to fighting discrimination against Saudi Arabia's Shiite Muslim minority.

She is charged with things including chanting, "we shall not be humiliated," and "we demand penalties for those who fired bullets," according to a brief on the case written by international human rights lawyer Oliver Windridge, which was circulated by the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights on Friday.

Saudi Arabia's Specialized Criminal Court was created to hear terrorism cases, but Windridge told CBS News, "its focus appears to have moved from terrorist suspects to human rights defenders and anti-government protesters."

Violations of international human rights law?

In his brief, Windridge lays out three ways in which the prosecution's indictment against al-Ghomgham may violate international law:

International attention

In an email, the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights said it hoped, "to make it known that the international community is closely monitoring this situation and is paying attention to the outcome of (al-Ghomgham's) case."

"In my view, the specialized criminal court continues, in all these cases, to violate international human rights law," Windridge told CBS News.

The six activists, including al-Ghomgham, are due to appear in court on Sunday, January 13.

First published on January 11, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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