Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the arrests of Saudi activists defending women's rights in the kingdom. The two organizations called on the Saudi authorities to release the detainees and identified six of them: Eman Al-Nafjan, Loujain Al-Hathloul, Aziza Al-Yousef, Aisha al-Mana, Ibrahim Al-Mudimigh and Mohammed Al-Rabeeah.
Amnesty International pointed out that, in a shocking development, the Saudi authorities' media have campaigned against female Saudi activists to demonize them describing them as "traitors," directly after their arrest. A Hashtag on Twitter described the detainees as "agents of foreign embassies."
Amnesty International expressed serious concerns about the serious campaign to discredit female detainees, who stood for the defence of women's rights in Saudi Arabia, stressing that these flagrant methods of intimidation are definitely unjustified.
Commenting on the discrepancy between Saudi Arabia's reform plans and the actual practices of the kingdom's authorities, Amnesty stated that: "The Saudi regime has presented itself as a "reformer," but all these promises seem meaningless amid the intensified state of repression and silencing of opposition voices in the kingdom."
BREAKING: Activists who defied Saudi Arabia's ban on women drivers are behind bars and targeted by outrageous smear campaign. This flies in the face of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's pledges of "reform". Full @amnesty reaction coming soon pic.twitter.com/GnbWRXwkg1
— amnestypress (@amnestypress) May 19, 2018
Human Rights Watch revealed the reasons behind Saudi authorities' arrest of the seven activists on the first day of Ramadan. The organization launched the slogan "Defending women's rights led them to prison," amid expectations that the arrest campaign will include more activists in the upcoming days.
Human Rights Watch stated the reasons behind the arrest of the seven activists were not clear, but quoted activists as saying that in September 2017 "the Royal Court contacted prominent activists … and warned them against making media statements." H.R.W. explained that the Royal Court's contact with these activists "took place on the same day as the decision to lift the ban on women driving cars."
"The reform campaign launched by the kingdom is a source of concern for Saudi reformers who dare to publicly defend human rights and liberate women," said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch division in the Middle East division.
She added during a statement, "It seems that the only crime committed by these activists is that their desire to see women drive cars has preceded the authorities'. Reform has so far been a campaign to intimidate true Saudi reformers, who publicly dare to defend human rights or empower women. The message is clear. Anyone who would question the government's agenda will be imprisoned." "If they are in prison for this reason, then the authorities should release them immediately," she concluded.
Human Rights Watch pointed out that Loujain Al-Hathloul, Eman Al-Nafjan, and Aziza Al-Yousef were among the activists who were arrested since 15 May. Those three women are activists who defended women's right to drive the car and demanded that men guardianship over women be lifted.
"There are also a number of other detainees, whose names have not yet been identified amid the fierce campaign, in which the authorities have targeted liberal activists and women activists in particular as an anticipation of the implementation of the decision to allow women to drive the car," a human rights source said.
According to the New Arab newspaper, the source pointed out that, in addition to the State Security Service, new State bodies have participated in the arrests, including the so-called the State Cyber Security Service, which is managed by Saoud Al-Qahtani, media adviser in the Court.
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) May 20, 2018
The source expected that the campaign would include a larger number of activists, which justifies human rights activists shutting off phones, and deleting some of their Social Media accounts for fear of being prosecuted by the authorities.
In addition to demanding women's right to leadership, Loujain Al-Hathloul and Eman Al-Nafjan signed a petition in 2016 calling for abolishing men's legal guardianship, which requires women to obtain the consent of a male relative to make important decisions. Loujain Al-Hathloul was arrested at least twice for her activities.
Women who had previously been involved in protests against denying women the right to drive cars, told Reuters last year that more than 20 activists had received phone calls asking them not to comment on the decree lifting the ban. Some were arrested during that week.