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Since 15 May 2018, Saudi Arabian authorities have arrested at least 13 women’s rights activists for their peaceful activism. The arrests come just over a month before 24 June, when the driving ban on women is due to be lifted, raising questions about the real impact of the so-called reforms being implemented in the country.
Among the activists are Eman al-Nafjan, Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-yousef, Aisha al-Manea, Madiha al-Ajroush, Walaa al-Shubbar and Hasah al-Sheikh, as well as male campaigners Ibrahim Modeimigh, Muhammad al-Rabe and Abdulaziz al-Meshaal, all of whom are against the male guardianship system. This system allows a male guardian, a father, husband, brother, cousin or son to make critical decisions on a woman’s behalf, like travelling, applying for a passport, studying abroad or getting married.
Activists told the Associated Press that seven of those detained were trying to establish a NGO called Amina to provide support and shelter to victims of domestic abuse.
Al-Hathloul and al-Nafjan also publicly opposed the driving ban, and signed a petition in 2016 to abolish the male guardianship system. Al-Hathloul has been detained twice already, for driving in 2014 and for her activism in June 2017, while al-Nafjan was detained briefly in 2013 for filming another female activist driving in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
The government later announced that seven people had been arrested for suspicious contacts with foreign entities and offering financial support to ‘enemies overseas’, and said authorities would identify others involved. They have also been called traitors.
“We are extremely concerned about the recent arrests in Saudi Arabia and about the continued repression of freedom of expression that we see in general,” Kareem Chehayeb, a Saudi Arabia researcher at Amnesty International, told Fanack Chronicle. “It is also an important magnitude of arrests and we don’t know where [the activists] are, and the conditions of release for the ones who were released. This is very worrying.”
Chehayeb recalled the case of human rights defenders Mohammad al-Otaibi and Abdullah al-Attawi, who in January were sentenced to 14 and 7 years in prison respectively, for ‘participating in setting up an organization and announcing it before getting an authorization’, ‘dividing national unity, spreading chaos and inciting public opinion by preparing, drafting and publishing statements that are harmful to the reputation of the kingdom and its judicial and security institutions’, and ‘publishing information about their interrogations despite signing pledges to refrain from doing so’.
“These latest arrests are not a rare case, even during a period of so-called reform, because we have been observing people sent to jail and submitted to harsh sentences for their peaceful activism and criticizing the [Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, MBS],” Chehayeb added. “I think that human rights are not on the agenda, even if we are seeing talks about reforms.”
Amnesty International had published a blog post entitled ‘Saudi Arabia should invest in human rights, not PR [public relations] campaigns’ on 29 March 2018, saying, ‘If you didn’t know better, you would think Saudi Arabia is on a path to major reform. However, in the months since the crown prince’s appointment, we have seen little reason to believe that his overtures are anything more than a slick PR exercise. In fact, Saudi Arabia retains an atrocious human rights record and the situation has only deteriorated since the crown prince was appointed as official heir to the throne in June 2017.’
Since he assumed the leadership of the kingdom, MBS has embarked on a campaign of social, financial and cultural reforms as part of Vision 2030, to develop the country’s potential, and open up and improve the life of its citizens. Instead, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on 6 May that ‘analyzed data from a public Interior Ministry database…revealed that authorities have detained 2,305 people who are under investigation for more than six months without referring them to a judge. The number held for excessively long periods has apparently increased dramatically in recent years. A similar Human Rights Watch analysis in May 2014 revealed that only 293 people had been held under investigation for that period.’
Without the ability to protest and criticize, and the ongoing threat of arrest and imprisonment, human rights defenders do not seem to have a place in the kingdom’s Vision 2030. Women’s rights activists, in particular, are ironically being punished for pushing the same agenda that led Saudi Arabia to lift the driving ban in the first place – and been praised internationally for it. However, the arrests are looking increasingly like a way to silence the activists in order to avoid having to give more rights to women.