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Saudis detain women’s advocates ahead of driving ban lift

By Agencies - May 19,2018 - Last updated at May 19,2018

A Saudi woman checks a car at the first automotive showroom solely dedicated for women in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on January 11 (Reuters photo)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Saudi authorities have arrested seven prominent women's rights advocates, dividing public opinion just weeks before the kingdom is set to lift its driving ban on women. 

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the authorities to release the detainees, identifying six of them as Eman Al Nafjan, Lujain Al Hathloul, Aziz Al Yousef, Aisha Al Manea, Ibrahim Modeimigh and Mohammed Al Rabea. Some are women, and others are men who have campaigned for women's rights, the Reuters News Agency reported.

Those arrested are facing accusations including making "suspicious contact with foreign parties", providing financial support to "hostile elements abroad" and recruiting government workers, according to Agence France-Presse.

The crackdown comes even as the kingdom breaks with long-held restrictions on women and the mixing of the genders, with its driving ban on women slated to end June 24.

But there were warnings that Riyadh would not tolerate those pushing for change outside its authority. 

Activists told HRW that in September 2017, on the same day authorities announced the driving ban would be lifted, the Royal court had called up prominent activists and warned them not to speak to the media. 

 

'Chilling smear campaign' 

 

With a front page reading "Your betrayals have failed", Al Jazirah newspaper named two of those activists arrested, Agence France-Presse reported.

On Twitter — a popular tool of communication for Saudi Arabia's young population — opinions were sharply divided. 

"No place for traitors among us," SaudiNews50 wrote.

Supporters of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, seen as the architect behind a succession of social reforms emanating from Riyadh, backed the sweep.

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, Agence France-Presse reported. 

For other Saudis, the treatment of trailblazers who fought for many of the reforms now coming to fruition was a shock. 

"This round of arrests was strictly targeting Saudi feminism," tweeted Saudi-American activist Nora Abdulkarim. 

Abdullah Al Aoudh, a Saudi-educated scholar now at Yale Law, said the charges did not add up. 

"For those who consider these arrests to be in defence of religion and religious scholars, I'd just like to remind you that the scholars and intellectuals of the country are in jail... in the same scenario," he tweeted, according to Agence France-Presse. 

The detainees had not only fought for the lifting of the driving ban, but also against the kingdom's enduring guardianship laws.

Saudi Arabia's guardianship system requires women to obtain permission from their fathers, brothers, husbands or even sons for a host of life decisions.

Activists Hathloul and Nafjan in 2016 signed a petition to abolish Saudi Arabia's male guardianship system, according to HRW. 

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