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Rights groups demand release of Saudi women driving activists

Critics say the arrest of seven women's rights activists shows lack of commitment by authorities to implement reforms.

Human rights groups have called on Saudi Arabia to release women's rights activists detained on Friday, just weeks before the kingdom is expected to lift a driving ban on women

A number of women's rights activists, who advocated for more rights, most markedly the right to drive, have been arrested in recent days and branded as threats to national security. 

The group of activists, which represents several generations of Saudi feminists and includes five women and two men, could face up to 20 years in jail if found guilty, according to the rights groups.

Rothna Begum, a women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the arrests seem to effectively be related to the lifting of the driving ban scheduled for June 24.

"We know that back in September 2017, the authorities called women's rights activists, including the ones who have recently been arrested, to tell them not speak to the media and then hours later announced to the world that they were lifting the driving ban."

READ MORE: Saudi women driving ban lifted: Euphoria and sarcasm

"In March again, Loujain al-Hathloul - one of the women who has recently been arrested - was arrested around the time of the lead-up to [Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman just before he went on his world tour to show what a reformer he is on Saudi Arabia," Begum added.

"Again, these arrests are happening largely as a way to silence the critics of Mohammed bins Salman's reform campaign in particular because these women's rights activists are demanding more than just the lifting of the driving ban."

The arrests have cast doubt over Riyadh's commitment to effecting change as part of its much-touted Vision 2030.

Earlier on Monday, Amnesty International criticised the crown prince's pledges to implement reforms, describing them as "PR hype and spin", which exclude women's rights activism.

While it was not immediately clear why the group was detained, social media posts on government-affiliated accounts accuse the activists of treason and maintaining ties to foreign entities.

An active smear campaign online using the Arabic hashtag "agents of embassies" was also trending with more than half a million people using the phrase on Twitter over the past few days.

Death threats

Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi activist jailed for driving, said on Monday she had received fresh death threats after the arrest of fellow campaigners, which she called an "alarming" tactic aimed at silencing dissent in the conservative kingdom.

"If you ask me why they've been arrested, it's just to send a message for women's rights activists who've been campaigning to drive to just shut up," al-Sharif told Reuters news agency from Sydney, Australia where she now resides.

Al-Sharif said she also received a call earlier last year asking that she keep quiet, just days before the kingdom announced its historic decree on the lifting of the driving ban.

READ MORE: Saudi women defy driving ban across country

"I am getting threats now, but I don't really care," the 39-year-old said, expressing concern for the detainees.

"They say: 'You're next. Don't think that because you are in Sydney, we're not going to get you.' But I really don't care because it's just a smearing campaign - and I know because I've been subjected to that when I was in jail," al-Sharif said.

Bin Salman's decision to lift the ban was hailed as proof of a genuine commitment to reforms under the 32-year-old's fresh leadership, but the concurrent crackdown on dissident has raised questions about the full extent of the stated efforts.

"That's the shock. What's happening here? We're all happy and all supportive when the (driving) ban was lifted. I thought, 'Finally, I can dream of a new society.' But right now, I see my dream being shattered," al-Sharif said.

"It's so disappointing. I was so hopeful, but the way that these women are being treated is not promising. It's alarming," she said.

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