Update: Saudi officials released Aisha al-Mana and Dr. Hessa al-Sheikh on 23 May and 24 May respectively. The rest of the activists remain in detention. Many of them have reportedly been able to contact their families, although officials have not allowed Loujain al-Hathloul to contact either her family or her lawyer.
24 May 2018 – Last week, Saudi authorities arrested 10 people – seven women and three men – for their work to promote women’s rights only weeks before the government is set to lift the ban on women driving. Since the arrests, state media has vilified the activists as “traitors.” Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) condemns the arrests and subsequent smear campaign and calls on the Saudi government to immediately release the activists and drop all charges against them.
Among those detained is activist Loujain al-Hathloul. Al-Hathloul has been outspoken in calling for the end to the guardianship system and for women to have the right to drive. She first rose to prominence in 2014, when she attempted to drive from Abu Dhabi to the Saudi border. She was detained for 73 days. No charges were filed and she was later released. Since that time she has remained active defending women’s rights and, as a result, has been continually targeted by state authorities. Most recently, she was detained by authorities in June 2017 as she returned from a trip to the United States.
Many of the other detainees have also been actively involved for years in promoting women’s rights. Dr. Aisha al-Mana and Madeha al-Ajroush have long participated in campaigns challenging the driving ban and promoting women’s rights, including taking part in the first driving protest in 1990. Professor Aziza al-Youssef has spent decades fighting for women’s rights, including submitting a petition calling for an end to the guardianship system to the royal palace. Professor Iman al-Nafjan, a blogger and human rights defender, has also pushed for the end to the driving ban and guardianship system and along with al-Youssef defied the driving ban in 2013. Both have also worked to help domestic abuse victims. Hessah al-Sheikh is another longtime women’s rights activist who participated in the 1990 driving protest. Walaa al-Shubbar has appeared on news programs calling for an end to the guardianship system. Three men were also detained, including Dr. Ibrahim al-Modeimigh, a lawyer who has defended human rights activists like al-Hathloul and Waleed Abu al-Khair; Mohammad al-Rabae, a writer an activist; and Abdulaziz al-Meshaal, who worked to protect women survivors of domestic violence.
According to the Saudi Press Agency, the activists “dared to violate the country’s religious and national pillars through making contacts in support of the activities of foreign circles [and] with the aim to destabilize the Kingdom and breach its social structure and mar the national consistency in violation of Article 12 of the Basic System for Rule.” The charges are consistent with charges under the 2017 counter-terror law. After the arrests, other news agencies quickly accused them of “plotting to ‘violate national unity’” with one newspaper branding them “traitors.” It is reported that under these charges, the activists could face up to 20 years in prison.
The arrests come only weeks before the kingdom decreed women would be able to drive, and in the midst of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s stated efforts to bring about social change, particularly through his Vision 2030 campaign. However, his record as a reformer has been blemished by arrests of activists, an increase in executions, and continued allegations of war crimes in the war in Yemen. Indeed, only hours after the king decreed in September 2017 that women would be able to drive in June 2018, authorities called activists and pressured them not to comment on the decision. There has also been a spike in executions under the Crown Prince. In the eight months since June, when bin Salman became Crown Prince, the kingdom executed 133 people, compared to the 67 people executed in the eight months before bin Salman became Crown Prince. Then in September, bin Salman oversaw the arrests of dozens of dissidents, academics, clerics, and activists. The arrest of these activists appears to be a continuation of this campaign of suppression.
“These arrests demonstrate that for all his talk of reform, Mohammed bin Salman remains uninterested in sweeping change. Even though the Saudi government decreed an end to the ban on driving, authorities have arrested the activists who campaigned for it,” Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB. “All of those governments who welcomed bin Salman with open arms and bought his rhetoric of change and reform must work for the release of these activists. The international community must demonstrate their respect for peaceful activism and fundamental freedoms by supporting these activists and calling for their release and the dropping of all charges.”
The Saudi government’s detention of these activists continues the trend of harassment towards dissidents and human rights defenders. Even while ending the driving ban, the government is actively silencing those who campaigned for the end of the ban and encouraging a smear campaign in the media against the activists. ADHRB calls on the Government of Saudi Arabia to uphold its human rights obligations by releasing those detained, dropping all charges, and ending its persecution of human rights defenders.