(Bloomberg) -- Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on prominent women’s rights advocates is a “chilling development” for independent critics of the government, Amnesty International said in a statement.
Saudi authorities arrested seven activists last week, one month before the lifting of a longstanding ban on women drivers. Officials accused the activists of working “together in an organized manner to violate religious and national values” and having “suspicious communication with foreign agencies,” according to the state-run Saudi Press Agency.
“This chilling smear campaign is an extremely worrying development for women human rights defenders and activists in Saudi Arabia,” Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East director of campaigns, said on Saturday. “Such blatant intimidation tactics are entirely unjustifiable.”
Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is loosening some social restrictions by letting women drive, permitting movies to be shown and offering greater entertainment options for citizens. He is also behind the clampdown on dissent. Since September, authorities have arrested dozens of clerics, intellectuals, businessmen and activists from across the political spectrum, tightening the once relatively permissive public discourse in the authoritarian kingdom.
The latest detentions come as plans to ease the country’s addiction to oil struggle to spur economic growth and create jobs. The Saudi economy shrank 0.7 percent in 2017 mainly as oil production dropped, while the non-oil sector grew 1 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund. Unemployment remained at 12.8 percent in the third and fourth quarters, according to the General Authority for Statistics in Riyadh.
Some of those taken into custody, including Loujain Al Hathloul, have been pushing for years for women to be allowed to drive. She was arrested in 2014 for trying to drive across the border between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Also detained were Aziza Alyousef, Madeha Alajroush, Eman Alnafjan and Aisha AlMana, who are prominent women’s rights advocates, as well as Ibrahim Almodaimigh, a lawyer who had represented Al Hathloul, and Mohammed Alrabea, a Saudi male supporter of women’s rights.
“The message is clear that anyone expressing skepticism about the crown prince’s rights agenda faces time in jail,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on Friday.
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