Saudi Arabia arrests women's rights activists for 'transgressing religious principles' and 'communicating with foreign entities'
Leading Saudi women's rights advocates have been detained on bizarre list of charges including "transgressing national and religious principle" and working with "foreign entities.
It is not clear why the seven women were arrested, but activists have been reportedly told by authorities not to speak to media, Human Rights Watch reported.
Sources close to The New Arab said the purge started on Thursday, the first day of Ramadan.
Saudi Arabia's ministry of interior confirmed the arrests and listed the charges on Twitter.
"Seven were arrested on charges of transgression against national and religious principles, suspicious communication with foreign entities, recruitment of persons working in governmental positions, providing financial support to hostile foreign elements to undermine the kingdom's security and its social and national fabric," the ministry stated.
Those arrested include Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan, activists who have long opposed a driving ban on women in the kingdom.
That is set to be lifted on 24 June, as well as the kingdom's enduring guardianship laws, where women are forced to seek permission from male relatives for a long-list of decisions in life.
Activists Nafjan and Hathloul in 2016 signed a petition to end the male guardianship system, HRW said.
They also campaigned against the driving ban, before a royal decree said it would be lifted.
Hathloul was previously arrested at age 25 when she drove from neighbouring UAE to the Saudi land border in November 2014, HRW said. She was held in juvenile detention for 73 days.
Another detainee is a semi-retired lawyer, who has stepped in to represent Saudi human rights advocates in recent years.
While the reasons behind the arrests are not clear, activists told HRW that in September 2017, "the royal court had called the country's prominent activists ... and warned them not to speak to the media."
"The calls were made the same day the authorities announced that they would lift the driving ban on women," HRW said.
Human Rights Watch said that despite promises of reform by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the next-in-line to the throne must end the strangling of civil society.
"Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's 'reform campaign' has been a frenzy of fear for genuine Saudi reformers who dare to advocate publicly for human rights or women's empowerment," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at the watchdog.
"It appears the only 'crime' these activists committed was wanting women to drive before Mohammed bin Salman did," she said, referring to the powerful crown prince.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has announced a series of reforms in the conservative kingdom but has been criticised for the mass detention of critics, activists and leading figures.
Saudi activists also argue that social changes will only be cosmetic without dismantling the kingdom's guardianship system.