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The New Arab

Three women's rights activists arrested as Saudi Arabia continues its crackdown

Amnesty International condemned the commentary of the arrests as a "chilling smear campaign [Getty]

Date of publication: 22 May, 2018

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Saudi Arabia is continuing its crackdown on human rights advocates, weeks before the country ends a ban on women drivers.

Three more women's rights activists have been arrested by Saudi authorities as the kingdom continues its widening crackdown, weeks before a driving ban on women is set to lifted in the kingdom.

Human Rights Watch recorded last week the arrest of seven leading Saudi women's rights advocates on bizarre list of charges including, "transgressing national and religious principle" and working with "foreign entities".

Those arrested include Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan, activists who have long opposed a driving ban on women in the kingdom.

Amnesty International told Reuters that seven women and two men were being held, in addition to "one unidentified activist", a number confirmed by Human Rights Watch. Other activists have reported the arrest of 11 people - seven women and four men.

"Amnesty International is worried about reports of further arrests of individuals... and we call on the authorities to reveal the whereabouts of these individuals and reveal the charges against them," said Samah Hadid, Amnesty International's Middle East director of campaigns.

Sources speaking to The New Arab confirmed that a number of activists - as well as academics - were detained in a fierce crackdown that began Thursday evening.

While the reason for the arrest remain unknown, sources - who wish to remain anonymous - indicate that the latest arrests were tied to advocacy for women driving. 

"They detained them because they do not want them to publicly claim success," the source said. 

Women in Saudi Arabia will be allowed to start driving in the ultra-conservative kingdom from 24 June, the kingdom  announced earlier this month.

While some have hailed the "progressive move" it has also been accompanied by an apparent crackdown on dissent against critics, ranging from Islamist clerics to some of the very women who campaigned for years to end the ban.

Activists and analysts believe that the government is keen to avoid rewarding activism.

Saudi Arabia has described these activists as "traitors" and has left public opinion divided, with those backing the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmam's sweeping reforms supporting the arrests.  

Referring to the detainees as "agents of the embassies", political analyst Naif al-Asaker tweeted that anyone who did not support their arrest was either a "covert partner" or simply "ignorant".  

Amnesty International condemned the commentary of the arrests as a "chilling smear campaign" and an "extremely worrying development for women human rights defenders" in the country. 

In September, a royal decree announced the end of a decades' long ban on women driving - the only one of its kind in the world.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 32, is seen as the force behind the lifting of the ban, part of a series of reforms being pushed by the powerful royal in the conservative kingdom

His economic Vision 2030 reform plan for a post-oil era seeks to elevate women to nearly one-third of the workforce, up from about 22 percent now.

Saudi activists say social change will only be cosmetic without dismantling the kingdom's rigid guardianship system, which requires women to seek permission from a male relative to study, travel and other activities.

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