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HRW: Saudi Arabia Detains Women's Rights Activists Ahead of Driving Ban Repeal

Saudi King Salman annulled the longstanding ban on women driving last September. (file photo)

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Saudi authorities have detained seven women's rights activists who had advocated for ending the kingdom's ban on women driving.

Saudi Arabia's security apparatus said in a statement published by state media on May 19 that seven people had been taken into custody on suspicion of "attempting to undermine the security and stability of the kingdom…and to erode national unity."

The statement did not identify the detainees, whom authorities accuse of making "suspicious contact with foreign parties" and giving financial support to "hostile elements abroad."

But rights groups say all of those detained were linked to campaigning for ending the Saudi ban on women driving, which the kingdom is set to lift on June 24.

The news site Sabq, which is seen as close to authorities, connected the detentions to the women's rights activists.

The decision to end a decades-old ban on women driving cars has been hailed as proof of a new progressive trend under reform-minded Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but has been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent.

Saudi King Salman in September annulled the longstanding ban on women driving, a move that Prince Mohammad is believed to have spearheaded.

"It appears the only 'crime' these activists committed was wanting women to drive before Mohammad bin Salman did," Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at HRW, said in a May 18 statement.

"If they are in jail because of their advocacy the authorities should release them immediately," Whitson added.

The detainees include Loujain al-Hathloul and Eman al-Nafjan, women who have been staunch opponents of the driving ban and Saudi Arabia's guardianship system requiring women to receive permission from male relatives prior to making decisions on a range of matters, HRW said.

"Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's 'reform campaign' has been a frenzy of fear for genuine Saudi reformers who dare to advocate publicly for human rights or women's empowerment," Wilson said. "The message is clear that anyone expressing skepticism about the crown prince's rights agenda faces time in jail."

With reporting by AP, AFP, Reuters, and dpa