DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Saudi Arabia is holding and interrogating at least 10 women’s rights activists — seven women and three men — without any access to lawyers, according to people familiar with the arrests. The detentions are seen as a culmination of a steady crackdown on perceived critics of the government.
People familiar with the arrests say the activists were allowed just one phone call to worried relatives a week ago, and that one of the women has been held entirely incommunicado. They spoke to The Associated Press late on Monday on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions.
The sweep began a week ago, on May 15, when police detained the 10 in the capital, Riyadh, and transferred them to the city of Jiddah. Their exact whereabouts now are unknown. Saudi media say the arrests were carried out by forces from the Presidency of State Security, a body that reports directly to the king and crown prince.
Activists told the AP that seven of those detained were involved in efforts to establish a non-government organization called “Amina” that would offer support and shelter to victims of domestic abuse. They had recently submitted their request to the government to establish the NGO.
The arrests cast a pall over recent social openings being pushed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, including a historic decision to lift the world’s only ban on women driving on June 24.
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Amnesty International says Prince Mohammed’s promises of reform “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,” said Samah Hadid, Amnesty’s Mideast director.
When the kingdom issued its royal decree last year announcing that women would be allowed to drive in 2018, women’s rights activists were contacted by the royal court and warned against giving interviews to the media or speaking out on social media.
Following the warnings, some women left the country for a period of time and others stopped voicing their opinions on Twitter. In recent weeks, activists say dozens of women’s rights campaigners have also been banned from traveling abroad.
Several of the recently detained women are seen as icons of the Saudi women’s rights movement and had called for an end to guardianship laws that give men final say over whether a woman can marry, obtain a passport or travel abroad. Their movement was seen as part of a larger democratic and civil rights push in the kingdom.
Their advocacy, though tempered in recent years due to fear of arrest, represented one of the last remaining spaces of activism in the kingdom, where all protests are illegal and where all major decisions rest with King Salman and the crown prince.
Over the past years, authorities have steadily cracked down on human rights defenders, including some dozen members of the now dissolved Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights, known by its Arabic acronym HASEM. The group’s founding members are serving lengthy prison terms under a sweeping anti-terrorism law dating back to 2014, which defines acts as vague as “defaming the state’s reputation” as terrorism.
The Interior Ministry has not named the 10 arrested but said they are being investigated for communicating with “foreign entities,” working to recruit people in sensitive government positions and providing money to foreign circles with the aim of destabilizing and harming the kingdom.
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Pro-government media outlets have splashed some of the women’s photos online and in newspapers, accusing them of being traitors and of belonging to a “spy cell”. The pro-Saudi Asharq al-Awsat newspaper reported the group is being investigated for “using human rights as a pretext to violate the country’s systems.”
Legal experts have been quoted in state-aligned newspapers as saying the group could face up to 20 years in prison, and, although unlikely, charges of treason, which carry the death penalty.
Rights activists, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions, say Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Najfan — three well-known Saudi women’s rights activists— are among the 10.
They say Madeha al-Ajroush, Aisha al-Mana and Hessah al-Sheikh — all in their 60s or 70s— are also among the 10 detained. The three took part in the first women’s protest movement for the right to drive in 1990, in which nearly 50 women were arrested for driving and lost their passports and their jobs.
Some of the arrested women are professors at state-run universities.
The arrests have stunned even “the government’s most stalwart defenders,” Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi wrote in an opinion piece for the Washington Post. He says the message from the arrests is clear: “No independent voice or counter-opinion will be allowed. Everyone must stick to the party line.”
Khashoggi, who fled Saudi Arabia during the start of a wave of mass arrests in the kingdom last year, wrote: “We are expected to vigorously applaud social reforms and heap praise on the crown prince while avoiding any reference to the pioneering Saudis who dared to address these issues decades ago.”
Last year, Prince Mohammed oversaw the arrests of dozens of writers, intellectuals and moderate clerics who were perceived as critics of his foreign policies. He also led an unprecedented shakedown of top princes and businessmen, forcing them to hand over significant portions of their wealth in exchange for their freedom as part of a purported anti-corruption campaign.
Activists say lawyer Ibrahim al-Mudaimigh, who represented several human rights defenders at great personal risk, is also among those detained. He defended al-Hathloul in court when she was arrested in late 2014 for more than 70 days for her online criticism of the government and for attempting to drive from neighboring United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia.