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Saudi media brands women's rights activists 'traitors'

Saudi women's rights activist Manal Al Sharif driving in Dubai [Getty]

Date of publication: 19 May, 2018

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Just weeks ahead of lifting the driving ban, Saudi authorities have arrested prominent women's rights activists.
Pro-government media outlets in Saudi Arabia have accused eight women's rights activists who were detained of betrayal and of being traitors. 

The activists persistently called for an end to the driving ban and stressed this was only a first step toward equality. Part of their demands include scrapping the mahram ("guardianship") system that gives men final say over whether a woman can marry, travel or get a passport. 

The mostly-female activists include Dr Aisha al-Mana, Madeha al-Ajroush, Aziza al-Yousef, Dr Eman AlNafjan, Loujain AlHathloul, Dr Ibrahim al-Modaimeegh, Mohammad al-Rabea and Abdulaziz Mohammad al-Mashail.

Immediately after news of the arrests broke, pro-government Twitter accounts were branding the group as treasonous under an Arabic hashtag.

The pro-government SaudiNews50 Twitter account, with its 11.5 million followers, splashed images of those arrested with red stamps over their face that read "traitor" and saying that "history spits in the face of the country's traitors".

The state-linked Al-Jazirah newspaper published on its front-page a photo of al-Hathloul and al-Yousef under a headline describing them as citizens who betrayed the nation.

Activists say it's not clear why the eight have been arrested now.

The recent push for women's rights in Saudi Arabia is seen as part of a larger campaign in the kingdom, where protests are illegal and all major decision-making rests with the royal family. 

The stunning arrests come just six weeks before Saudi Arabia is set to lift the world's only ban on women driving next month.

When the kingdom issued its royal decree last year announcing that women would be allowed to drive in 2018, women's rights activists were contacted by the royal court and warned against giving interviews to the media or speaking out on social media.

Following the warnings, some women left the country for a period of time and others stopped voicing their opinions on Twitter.

As activists were pressured into silence, Saudi Arabia's 32-year-old heir to the throne, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, stepped forth, positioning himself as the force behind the kingdom's reforms.

Human Rights Watch says, however, the crown prince's so-called reform campaign "has been a frenzy of fear for genuine Saudi reformers who dare to advocate publicly for human rights or women's empowerment".

"The message is clear that anyone expressing skepticism about the crown prince's rights agenda faces time in jail," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Last year, Crown Prince and de facto leader Mohammed bin Salman oversaw the arrests of dozens of writers, intellectuals and reformist clerics who criticised his policies. He also launched a purported anti-corruption probe in November that was widely viewed as a means to consolidate power.

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