|[Published: Saturday May 19 2018]
Rights groups condemn Saudi women activists' arrests
DUBAI, 19 May. - (ANA) - International rights groups have condemned the arrests this week of seven prominent Saudi Arabian women’s rights activists who previously campaigned for the right to drive, which the deeply 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 late on Friday to release the detainees, who include Eman al-Nafjan and Lujain al-Hathloul as well as two men.
“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, and seems determined not to antagonize sensitivities of religious conservatives opposed to modernisation.
The authorities said overnight that they had arrested seven people for suspicious contacts with foreign entities and offering financial support to enemies overseas.
A state security statement did not identify the detainees, but online news site Sabq, seen as close to the authorities, linked them to the arrests of women activists.
Reuters is not publishing all of their names due to fears of reprisals among some relatives of those arrested.
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 ban told Reuters last year that two dozen activists had received phone calls instructing them not to comment on the decree. 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 International’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 an ambitious reform program aimed at diversifying the economy away from oil and opening up Saudis’ cloistered lifestyles.-(ANA) -
AB/ANA/19 May 2018 - - -