Just weeks before Saudi Arabia is set to lift its ban on women driving, authorities last week detained several activists, accusing them of working with “foreign entities.” The rights activists in the Kingdom say all those detained had one thing in common — they had all participated in the much publicised and hailed “Right to Drive” campaign. Among the targeted are five of the most prominent and outspoken women’s rights campaigners in the country.
Pro-government media outlets have splashed their photos online and on newspapers, accusing them of betrayal and of being traitors. Those arrested have been identified as Eman al-Nafjan, Lujain al-Hathloul, Aziz al-Yousef, Aisha al-Manea, Ibrahim Modeimigh and Mohammed al-Rabea.
Citing a state security spokesman, state news agency SPA in a statement said the suspects arrested “had suspicious contacts with foreign entities to support their activities, recruited people working in sensitive government sites and offered financial support of hostile elements overseas.” It also added that the arrested aimed at undermining the security and stability of the country and dividing national unity and that the Kingdom will take all legal measures against them.
Denouncing what it called a public smear campaign by the government, rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called on the authorities to release the detainees. “It appears the only ‘crime’ these activists committed was wanting women to drive before Mohammed bin Salman did,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, told AP.
According to activists, the arrests were made to stop the women from “publicly claiming success” and stealing the credit from the government, Reuters reported. “Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has presented himself as a ‘reformer’, but such promises fall flat amid the intensifying crackdown on dissenting voices in the kingdom. 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,” Amnesty, said in its statement.
In an unprecedented move, Women in Saudia Arabia will be allowed to drive, starting on June 24. Women who previously participated in protests against the driving ban told Reuters last year that two dozen activists had received phone calls instructing them not to comment on the decree lifting it.
This is, however, not the first time that the activists have been pressured into silence. Last year, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman oversaw the arrests of dozens of writers, intellectuals and moderate clerics who were perceived as critics of his foreign policies. In recent weeks, activists say several women’s rights campaigners were also banned from travelling abroad. (IE)