Saudi women activists say they will appeal judgment

Wajeeha al-Huwaider, one of the activists sentenced to a jail term, at the wheel of her car.

Wajeeha al-Huwaider, one of the activists sentenced to a jail term, at the wheel of her car.

‘We were only trying to help the Canadian woman by giving her food. We never tried to help her run away from her husband.’

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

THE two Saudi women’s activists, Wajeha al-Huwaider and Fawzia al-Ayuni, who were sentenced on June 15, 2013 to ten months in prison and a two year travel ban after that, for allegedly having tried to help a Canadian woman leave her Saudi husband, have said they will appeal the decision.

“These harsh sentences will not deter us from our Islamic duties of helping those who are oppressed, needy and to press for women’s rights,” they said in a statement published in Arabic on the Membar al-Ahwar website. “The charge of trying to smuggle Nathalie out of the country was dropped because the prosecution did not have enough evidence,” they noted, adding that there was no way they could have communicated so much information to the Canadian woman since she speaks only French, and does not know English or Arabic, and that they spoke to her for only five minutes.

The Canadian woman in question is Nathalie Morin, who has been in Saudi Arabia for eight years now, and is married to the Saudi national Saeed al-Shahrani. She had three children with him. Her case received wide coverage in the local press in 2011 when Wajeha and Fawzia were arrested on June 6 of that year after they met Nathalie in a shopping mall in Dammam to try and give her food, after Nathalie’s mother, Johane Durocher, contacted them asking for help. Her mother has claimed that Nathalie is being held against her will in Saudi, that her husband mistreats her, denies her adequate food, and has prohibited her from taking her children with her back to Canada.

The two activists also said that the ill-will against them on the part of the prosecutor was clear from the beginning, as he insisted on moving forward with the charge of Takhbib, or incitement of a wife to defy the authority of her husband, despite the fact that the governor of the Eastern Province had closed the file on the case two years ago. They also criticized the judicial authorities for never having called Nathalie to testify, despite the fact that six interrogation sessions were held in the case over the course of one year. They noted that the prosecution never gave a reason for not calling the Canadian woman to testify.

Johane told the Canadian daily La Presse that she was surprised the two activists had been convicted and that they had never incited her daughter to leave her husband. “They explained to me at great length that they might try to help my daughter. They never intended to kidnap her, take her to the Canadian embassy and never talked against her husband,” she told the daily. “Their only intention was to bring her some food.”

Nathalie met Saeed in Montreal, Canada, in 2001. She became pregnant in 2002, the same year Saeed was deported back to Saudi Arabia. She visited him twice in Saudi before moving there in 2005. She claims that her children are on a Saudi government blacklist since 2009, which prevents them from being issued Saudi passports and leaving the kingdom.

Nathalie Morin is seen here in this undated family photo taken with her husband and one of her children.

Nathalie Morin is seen here in this undated family photo taken with her husband and one of her children.

In this rather bizarre video — Nathalie Morin video — posted online in 2010, Nathalie is filmed in her Dammam apartment by her mother and brother when they visited her in the summer of 2009, seemingly talking into a cellphone while seated on a sofa, with a man in a white thobe—possibly her husband—walking in front of the camera several times. Other scenes show Nathalie pointing out her blacked out windows, her kitchen, missing ceiling light fixtures and the male section of her apartment, which has nice views of the street below and trees from their unblocked windows. (In many Saudi homes it is common to have a male living room for the men of the house to receive their male friends, far away from the women folk.)

The Canadian government has tried to help Nathalie, but they have said that since this is a family affair their hands are tied. “This is a complex family matter with no easy solution,” the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs told Arab News in 2011.

Under Saudi law, children usually remain in their father’s custody until they are of age, leaving foreign women who are married to Saudis, but who want to divorce, in a difficult position if there are children involved.  The US and other Western governments regularly warn their nationals to be aware of the custody laws when they intend to marry Saudi citizens. “If a couple consisting of a foreigner and a Saudi living in Saudi Arabia divorce, the foreign parent cannot under any circumstances leave the country with the children born of their union even if he or she is granted custody rights,” says the US State Department’s website.

Wajeeha has been in trouble before with Saudi authorities for repeatedly driving her car on public highways, filming herself doing so and posting the video online. Women are prohibited from driving in Saudi Arabia, despite there being nothing in Islamic law or tradition that says women cannot drive.

“It was clear to us from the beginning when the prosecutor in Dammam called us to testify, that there was malicious intent, and that the charges were brought against us in order to crush us and stop our humanitarian activities,” the two activists said in their statement.

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