Saudi women's right activists detained ahead of driving ban

Saudi women's right activists detained ahead of driving ban
Just weeks before Saudi Arabia's controversial driving ban for women seven women's rights activists has been arrested by Riyadh authorities.
2 min read
Saudi Arabia will end a ban on women driving next month [file photo-Getty]

Leading Saudi women's rights advocates have been detained just weeks before a controversial driving ban on women is set to be lifted, Human Rights Watch said Saturday.

It is not clear why the seven women were arrested, but activists have been reportedly told by authorities not to speak to media.

The round up began on 15 May and include Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan, women who have long opposed the driving ban.

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.