(Washington, DC) – Saudi prosecutors should drop an investigation possibly leading to formal criminal charges against a US citizen living in Saudi Arabia for “disrupting the public order,” Human Rights Watch said today. Carly Morris, 34, believes the allegation relates to her statements on social media voicing concerns about how Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system has affected her and her 8-year-old daughter.
A legal summons reviewed by Human Rights Watch orders Morris to appear at the public prosecution court in Buraydah in al-Qassim province on September 18, 2022. Article 103 of the criminal procedure law, cited in the summons, authorizes prosecutors to arrest and detain a person who is under investigation.
“The Saudi authorities are sending the message once again that anyone even criticizing their draconian and discriminatory laws can be a target for arrest and prosecution,” said Sarah Yager, Washington advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “US officials need to hear Carly Morris’ desperate plea for help and do all they can to protect her and her daughter from their Saudi ally’s repression.”
Morris told Human Rights Watch that she believes the investigation is related to tweets she published in April 2022 in which she wrote that Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system impedes her ability to depart Saudi Arabia with her daughter, perform parental duties like obtaining medical care, or make decisions about her daughter’s education without the approval of her former husband. Under Saudi law, only men can act as guardians of their children. Women cannot act as guardians and have limited authority over their children’s lives. Foreign national women face even greater restrictions.
In August, The Middle East Eye reported on Morris’ case. While Morris said her former husband told her in May he had opened a “slander and defamation” case against her because of her tweets, the September court summons only references “disrupting public order.” The basis of this charge remains unclear. “Disrupting public order” is an overbroad charge often leveled against Saudi dissidents and others for speaking out. Morris said that she fears government officials are seeking to prosecute her for speaking out online about her situation.
Morris’ daughter, Tala, 8, was born in the United States. Morris and her former husband married in 2013 and divorced in 2018. In August 2019, she and her daughter entered Saudi Arabia for a short visit between her daughter and former husband. Morris said that soon after their arrival, her former husband seized both their passports and Tala’s US birth certificate and refused to return the documents for several months. She said her former husband used the documents to apply for and successfully obtain Saudi citizenship for their daughter without her knowledge or permission.
While Morris said her former husband has since returned her passport, she said he continues to hold Tala’s US and Saudi passports and birth certificate “hostage,” and had withheld Tala’s family card until this week. Without these documents or her former husband’s permission as Tala’s male guardian, Morris cannot leave the country with her daughter.
While Morris retains primary custody of her daughter in Saudi Arabia, she said that without her daughter’s documents, she cannot make important decisions related to her daughter’s education, facilitate medical treatment for her, or benefit from the Saudi Social Development Bank’s established alimony fund or pension service, which she would otherwise be entitled to as a divorced mother of a Saudi child in Saudi Arabia.
Morris said the Buraydah branch of the General Directorate of Passports has repeatedly refused her attempts to obtain her daughter’s identification documents. She also requested the documents from the civil status office, where officials told her they were “not allowed” to issue copies to foreign mothers.
Saudi Arabia’s 2016 amendments to the Civil Status Law allow for Saudi and non-Saudi mothers and widows to obtain important identification documents for their children, including family cards, without male guardian approval.
Morris said she began tweeting in April 2022 about her situation but has since deleted her tweets. Human Rights Watch has reviewed Morris’ now-deleted tweets in which she identifies herself as a mother living in Saudi Arabia requesting help in accessing documents for her daughter.
Morris said she was called into the Buraydah police station for questioning in late May. There, she was shown a “big file” that included “screenshots of [her] Twitter page” and screenshots of WhatsApp messages that Morris asserts were not hers.
She said she cannot afford legal counsel and needs translation support.
US embassy officials in Saudi Arabia should facilitate Morris’ access to an embassy representative and an Arabic-language interpreter at the summons hearing, Human Rights Watch said. US embassy officials should also assist Morris in obtaining her daughter’s identification documents from the General Directorate of Passports and civil status offices.
The Saudi prosecution service is a major tool of Saudi repression and has been used to terrorize peaceful Saudi dissidents through various means, including harassment, endless summonses for interrogation, arbitrary detention, and prosecution in blatantly unfair trials on spurious charges. The head of Public Prosecution reports directly to the royal court.
Despite recent women’s rights reforms, including allowing women over 21, like men, to obtain passports and travel abroad without a guardian’s permission, Saudi women still must obtain a male guardian’s approval to get married, leave prison, or obtain certain types of health care. Women also continue to face discrimination in relation to marriage, family, divorce, and decisions relating to children, including child custody. The Personal Status Law passed in March 2022 codifies discrimination against women, including providing that women must have male guardian permission to marry, and once married, obey their husband.
Saudi courts have recently convicted and sentenced at least two other women on similar charges for their peaceful online speech. On August 9, an appeals court sentenced Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi doctoral student at the University of Leeds, to 34 years in prison for “disrupt[ing] the order and fabric of society.” That same day, Saudi courts sentenced Nourah bin Saeed al-Qahtani to 45 years in prison for “using the internet to tear the [country’s] social fabric.”
“Saudi authorities have only intensified their crackdown on peaceful speech since US President Joe Biden visited Jeddah in July,” Yager said. “Biden’s publicly abandoning his promise of holding Saudi Arabia to account for rampant abuses has only been followed by more brutal repression, especially against women.”