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Saudi woman arrives at a mosque to offer Eid al-Fitr morning prayers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Hassan Ammar/AP
Girls & Women

Saudi Authorities Temporarily Release 8 Women's Rights Activists

Saudi Arabia has temporarily released eight women’s rights campaigners, but authorities are still holding nine others in detention for alleged crimes against the kingdom.

In a statement released Saturday via the official Saudi Press Agency, the Saudi public prosecutor said that all 17 activists had admitted to crimes such as cooperating with “individuals and organizations hostile to the Kingdom” and providing “financial and moral support to hostile elements abroad.”

The prosecutor's statement did not identify any of the arrested individuals by name, but according to Bloomberg, long-time women’s rights activists Aisha al-Mana, Hessah al-Sheikh, Madeha al-Ajroush, and Walaa al-Shubbar are among those who have been temporarily released from detention. The prosecutor’s statement did mention that five women and three men were among those temporarily released, and five men and four women are still detained.

The arrested activists — a group that includes academics, students, bloggers, and long-established figures of the Saudi women's rights movement — have spent years, some decades, campaigning for issues such as the end of Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system. Their cases proceed as the kingdom is set to legalize driving for women — a main tenet of the activists' work — on June 24.

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Saudi authorities began arresting activists in a crackdown two weeks ago. On May 14, the Saudi Press Agency claimed that seven individuals were being held on charges related to contacting “foreign entities with the aim of undermining the country’s stability and social fabric.” A week later, press reports identified at least 11 missing women’s rights campaigners.

It’s not clear which foreign organizations the activists are accused of supporting, nor how authorities plan to proceed with their cases.

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. Charges brought against activists are often vaguely worded, which rights groups say reflects the government’s intent to selectively silence activist voices.

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

International human rights organizations have unequivocally condemned the arrests as paranoid suppression of dissent since the original sweep began in early May.

“The Saudi government seems so consumed with silencing dissent that even activists who have gone quiet for fear of retribution are being targeted again,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement last week.

Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East director of campaigns, urged the international community to speak out against the arrests in a statement on Friday. “The Saudi Arabian authorities’ endless harassment of women’s rights activists is entirely unjustifiable, and the world must not remain silent on the repression of human rights defenders in the country,” she said.

To date, neither the White House nor the US State Department have issued statements on the arrests.

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

In response to the prosecutor's statement, conservative and state-affiliated Saudi media continued on with what one Saudi activist has described as an “organized defamation campaign.”

“Agents of Embassies Confess — We Communicated with Hostile [Elements],” read a headline in the newspaper Al Jazirah.

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