Human rights groups condemn arrests of Saudi feminists as tainting Mohammed bin Salman’s reputation as a reformer


Cii Radio|Ayesha Ismail|22 May 2018|07 Ramadaan 1439

The arrests of at least seven high-profile women’s rights campaigners in Saudi Arabia have been condemned by human rights groups as a sign that tentative social reforms in the kingdom are not as wide-ranging as promised.

Eman al-Nafjan, Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziz al-Yousef and Aisha al-Manea – vocal activists against Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system, where women need to obtain permission from male relatives or husbands for a host of decisions – were all taken from their homes on Friday evening, according to reports which emerged over the weekend.

Along with male activists Ibrahim Modeimigh and Mohammed al-Rabe, and at least two others who have not been identified, they were arrested for alleged involvement in activities that “encroach on religious and national constants”, a government statement said.

They are accused of “suspicious contact with foreign entities to support their activities, recruiting some persons in charge of sensitive government positions, and providing financial support to hostile elements outside the country”, state news agency SPA reported, quoting a state security spokesman.

It is believed other campaigners fear being arrested in the crackdown.

All of those detained have at one point or another been involved in campaigning for the end of the kingdom’s ban on women driving – a rule that new Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has moved to abolish from next month.

“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.

The arrests – a devastating blow to the absolute monarchy’s tiny activist community – have been accompanied by a series of harsh denouncements in semi-official media outlets and social media accounts.

“There is no place for traitors among us,” a lengthy opinion piece in Okaz newspaper said on Monday. “Betraying the country is a red line regardless of [activist] goals.”

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman issued a royal decree last November announcing that women would be able to drive from 24 June 2018 for the first time since 1990.

The deeply symbolic move will transform women’s lives in a country where they must still seek the permission of a male guardian to fulfil needs and desires as basic as travel, study and opening a bank account.

In November, several of the arrested women were told by the authorities not to comment on the decision to repeal the ban, a move widely believed to try to ensure the government, rather than campaigners, received credit for the repeal.

Lifting the driving ban is one of a host of social and economic reforms that have been unveiled in the kingdom since Mohammed bin Salman was appointed crown prince by his father last June – these include the opening of cinemas and allowing women into sports stadiums for the first time.

The powerful 32-year-old is the driving force behind Vision 2030, the kingdom’s long-term plan to wean itself off dependence on oil by modernising its society. Crucially, allowing women to drive will help them enter the workforce.

Critics have said the reforms are a carrot for the Saudi public ahead of the economic hardship they inevitably face in future, and that they do not go as far as addressing the kingdom’s strict laws on freedom of expression, assembly, or the liberal use of capital punishment.

“It is clear that underneath all the PR hype and spin, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms exclude human rights activism,” said Samah Hadid of Amnesty International.

“Saudi Arabian authorities cannot continue to publicly state they are dedicated to reform, while treating women’s rights campaigners in this cruel way.”

In November 2017, members of the Saudi elite were locked up in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton as part of an anti-corruption drive, a move that spooked markets and also earned criticism from international rights groups.

Source – Independent