Continuing their steady crackdown on perceived critics of the government, Saudi Arabia is detaining and interrogating at least 10 women’s rights activists — seven women and three men — without allowing them access to lawyers, according to sources familiar with the arrests.
According to The Associated Press, the same sources, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions, said that the activists were allowed one call to relatives a week ago, although one woman had not been permitted to communicate at all.
The activists were reportedly detained on May 15 by forces from the Presidency of State Security, a group that reports directly to the king and crown prince. Some were arrested in the capital, Riyadh, and transferred to the city of Jiddah. Their current location is unknown.
Seven of those detained were engaged in an effort to establish a non-government organization called “Amina” that would support and shelter victims of domestic abuse. The group had recently submitted their request to the government for permission to establish the NGO.
Although Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has recently demonstrated some social leniency, including an historic decision to lift the world’s only ban on women driving, Amnesty International contends that his 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.
The crackdown is occurring despite the pledge of $100 million to a World Bank fund for women entrepreneurs by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The AP reported, “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 viewed as icons of the Saudi women’s rights movement, as well as leaders of a larger democratic and civil rights initiative in the country. The group insists upon the abolition of guardianship laws that allow men final say over whether a woman can marry, obtain a passport or travel abroad.
The detainees have not been named by the Interior Ministry, which claims they are being investigated for communicating with “foreign entities,” seeking to recruit people in sensitive government positions and providing money to foreign circles with the intent of destabilizing and bringing harm to Saudi Arabia.
Legal experts contend that each detainee could be punished with up to 20 years in prison. Although it is unlikely, if they are charged with treason, they could face the death penalty.
In an opinion piece written for The Washington Post, Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi noted that the arrests have stunned even “the government’s most stalwart defenders.” According to Khashoggi, the message conveyed by the arrests is apparent: “No independent voice or counter-opinion will be allowed. Everyone must stick to the party line.”