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In this March 29, 2014 file photo, Aziza Yousef drives a car on a highway in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as part of a campaign that at the time aimed to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving.
Hasan Jamali/AP
Girls & Women

Saudi Authorities Arrest Women's Rights Activists Ahead of Lifting Driving Ban

Saudi government authorities have arrested at least 10 women's rights activists in an apparent crackdown ahead of the lifting of its ban on women drivers, scheduled to go into effect next month, human rights activists reported.

The arrested activists included women, men, bloggers, professors, students, and youth activists who have spent years — some, decades — denouncing Saudi Arabia's male guardianship system and advocating for greater freedom for women, including the right to drive.

A statement from the Saudi Press Agency issued last week accused seven of the activists of forming “cells” and contacting “foreign entities with the aim of undermining the country’s stability and social fabric.” Several conservative and state-affiliated Saudi newspapers have referred the the arrestees as “traitors.”

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Among the arrested are Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent activist and graduate student who has been detained twice before — once for 75 days after driving into Saudi Arabia from the neighboring United Arab Emirates — and Dr. Eman al-Nafjan, a professor and well-known Saudi feminist blogger, according to Al Jazeera.

Nora Abdulkarim, a Saudi-American women’s rights activist and blogger, names the other arrestees as Dr. Ibrahim al-Modaimeegh, Dr. Aisha al-Mana, Madeha al-Ajroush, Aziza al-Yousef, Mohammad al-Rabea, Abdulaziz Mohamad al-Mashail, Dr. Hessah al-Shaik, and Wala'a al-Shubbar.

In September 2017, ahead of the announcement that the kingdom would be lifting the ban on women driving, a Saudi royal court reportedly called several prominent women’s rights activists, including al-Hathloul and al-Nafjan, instructing them to avoid publicly commenting about the decision. Yet some of the recently arrested activists continued to speak out, according to Reuters.

In an effort to silence dissenting voices, Saudi courts have convicted nearly 30 prominent activists since 2011, sentencing some to up to 15 years in prison, according to Human Rights Watch. The kingdom often uses vaguely worded crimes — including “breaking allegiance with the ruler,” “sowing discord,” “inciting public opinion,” and “setting up an unlicensed organization” — to selectively silence activist voices.

Read More: Saudi Women Are Gearing Up to Hit the Roads for the First Time in June

Since the arrests, Saudi media have mocked the arrested activists in what one Saudi activist described as an all too familiar “organized defamation campaign.”

“You and your betrayals failed,” read one headline. Another paper stamped the word “traitor” in red over photos of several of the activists. Yet another dedicated a full page to denouncing the activists as spies and traitors.

“I have no words. I never thought I’d see this,” tweeted Abdulkarim, the Saudi-American activist.

International human rights organizations have unambiguously denounced the kingdom’s arrests. Many have issued harsh statements against the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who recast himself as a champion of liberal reform after wresting power from oligarchical royals last year.

“Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has presented himself as a ‘reformer,' but such promises fall flat amid the intensifying crackdown on dissenting voices in the kingdom,” said Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East director of campaigns. “His pledges amount to very little if those who fought for the right to drive are now all behind bars for peacefully campaigning for freedom of movement and equality.”

Read More: Saudi Arabia Has Given Women Opportunities — But Its Human Rights Record Remains Abysmal

Over Twitter, several journalists and human rights researchers also called out Americans who, in their view, unquestioningly bought into the crown prince’s reform rhetoric during his extended visit to the United States in March and April.

“Anyone who argued #MBS is a reformer should be asking the man they defended why he has detained some of the country's bravest reformists, women and men who advocated for the same changes the Crown Prince wants credit for,” tweeted Kristine Beckerle, a Human Rights Watch researcher. In the tweet, she “cc’d” Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist who wrote a controversial piece last year praising Mohammed bin Salman as leading “the most significant reform process underway anywhere in the Middle East today.”

Neither the White House nor the US State Department has issued a statement on the arrests.

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