Saudis Detain Women's Rights Advocates Amid Crackdown

(Bloomberg) -- Several of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent women’s rights advocates were detained by authorities this week as the government continues a crackdown on independent critics, according to three people familiar with the arrests.

The detentions of seven activists came on the eve of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and one month before Saudi Arabia plans to lift its longstanding ban on women driving, the people said. They spoke anonymously due to the sensitivity of the matter. 

Some of those taken into custody have been pushing for years for women to be allowed to drive, including Loujain Al Hathloul. She was arrested in 2014 for trying to drive across the border separating 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 from different generations, as well as Ibrahim Almodaimigh, a lawyer who had represented Al Hathloul, and Mohammed Alrabea, a Saudi male supporter of women’s rights, two of the people said. The government’s Center for International Communication did not immediately respond to a request for comment, while the women detained couldn’t be reached by phone.

Authorities later issued a statement late Friday saying they had detained seven people who had “worked together in an organized manner to violate religious and national values” and who had “suspicious communication with foreign agencies,” according to the state-run Saudi Press Agency. The statement didn’t identify the people but it accused them of trying to “destabilize national security and social peace.”

Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has been leading the clampdown on dissent in the kingdom at the same time that he’s pushing an economic overhaul and loosening some social restrictions. Since September, the government has arrested dozens of clerics, intellectuals, businessmen and activists from across the political spectrum, tightening a once relatively permissive space for public discourse in the authoritarian kingdom.

Some of those detained had been banned from traveling outside of Saudi Arabia in recent weeks, but believed the issue was a misunderstanding they had been trying to resolve with authorities, other people familiar with the developments said, again speaking anonymously.

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