International rights groups have condemned the arrests this week of at least seven prominent Saudi Arabian women's rights activists who previously campaigned for the right to drive, which the conservative kingdom is set to grant from next month.
The decision to end a decades-old ban on women driving cars has been hailed as proof of a new progressive trend under reform-minded Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but has been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called on the authorities to release the detainees, identifying six of them as Eman al-Nafjan, Lujain al-Hathloul, Aziz al-Yousef, Aisha al-Manea, Ibrahim Modeimigh and Mohammed al-Rabea. Some are women, and others are men who have campaigned for women’s rights.
Authorities said in an overnight statement that they were still identifying others allegedly involved in activities that “encroach on religious and national constants”, and fellow activists said others had been arrested but the total number was not immediately clear.
“It appears the only ‘crime’ these activists committed was wanting women to drive before Mohammed bin Salman did,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
Women will be allowed to drive starting on June 24. Activists and analysts say, however, that the government is keen to avoid rewarding activism, which is forbidden in the absolute monarchy. The authorities also may aim to avoid antagonising the sensitivities of religious conservatives opposed to modernisation.
The government statement said seven people had been arrested for suspicious contacts with foreign entities and offering financial support to enemies overseas, without elaborating.
A state security spokesman did not identify the detainees, but online news site Sabq, seen as close to the authorities, linked them to the arrests of the women’s rights activists.
Amnesty denounced what it called a public smear campaign by Saudi authorities and government-aligned media to discredit the activists, whose faces have appeared online and on a newspaper front page labelling them as traitors.
In addition to agitating for women’s right to drive, Nafjan and Hathloul signed a petition in 2016 seeking an end to the kingdom’s male guardianship system, which requires women to obtain a male relative’s consent for major decisions. Hathloul was previously detained at least twice for her activism.
Women who previously participated in protests against the driving ban told Reuters last year that two dozen activists had received phone calls instructing them not to comment on the decree lifting it. Some of those arrested this week nonetheless continued to speak out.
“Saudi Arabia cannot continue to publicly proclaim support for women’s rights and other reforms, while targeting women human rights defenders and activists for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly,” said Samah Hadid, Amnesty’s Middle East Director of Campaigns.
Dozens of clerics seen by the government as dabbling in politics were detained separately last September, a move that appears to have paved the way for lifting the driving ban, which is part of a reform programme aimed at diversifying the economy away from oil and opening up Saudis’ cloistered lifestyles.