“The crown prince, who has styled himself as a reformer with Western allies and investors, should be thanking the activists for their contributions to the Saudi women’s rights movement,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, the Saudi authorities appear to be punishing these women’s rights champions for promoting a goal bin Salman alleges to support – ending discrimination against women.”
Local state media outlets identified the long-time rights advocates Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, and Eman al-Nafjan, along with Mohammad al-Rabea, an activist, and Ibrahim al-Modaimeegh, a human rights lawyer, among those arrested. It is not clear if the detained activists have been charged with the offenses the State Security cited.
Saudi activists told Human Rights Watch that the seriousness of the allegations and the viciousness of the deeply personalized media campaign are unprecedented and shocking. Saudi Arabia’s Okaz newspaper reported that those arrested could face up to 20 years in prison. Al-Jazirah, a local daily newspaper, published a photo of al-Hathloul and al-Yousef on its front page under a headline describing them as citizens who betrayed the state. A pro-government Twitter account posted images of those arrested with the word “traitor” splattered in red across their faces. Saudi Arabia does not permit any independent media to operate in the country.
Several of the detained activists are best known for campaigning against the ban on women driving and publicly advocating abolishing the male guardianship system, which gives men the authority to make a range of critical decisions on behalf of their female relatives. Their arrests come ahead of the anticipated lifting of a ban on women driving on June 24.
Saudi rights defenders said that in September 2017, the day the lifting of the ban was announced, officials working for the king’s office (also known as al-Diwan al-Malaki in Arabic) had phoned prominent activists, including some of those now detained, and warned them not to speak to the media.
Al-Yousef, 60, is a retired professor of computer science at King Saud University, and a leading activist in the longstanding campaign against the male guardianship system. Under this system, women need the permission of their male guardian – who may be their father, husband, brother, or even son – to apply for a passport, travel outside the country, study abroad on a government scholarship, get married, or even leave prison.
Al-Nafjan, 39, is an assistant professor of linguistics at a university in Riyadh, and the author of a popular blog on Saudi society, culture, and women’s rights. She has written about women’s rights for numerous international media, including the New York Times and the Guardian. In 2013, al-Yousef and al-Nafjan protested the driving ban by filming as they drove by police stations in Riyadh and were both briefly detained.
Saudi authorities detained al-Hathloul, 28, in November 2014, as she attempted to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates while live-streaming to bring international attention to the issue. She was held in a juvenile detention center for 73 days. She has built a significant social media following since then, with over 300,000 followers on Twitter, which has widespread popularity in Saudi Arabia.
Mohammad bin Salman has offered rhetorical support for women’s rights reforms, especially during his whirlwind public relations tour in the United States and Europe promoting business opportunities and promising “a return to moderate Islam.” During his interview with 60 Minutes on March 19, he said: “Saudi women still have not received their full rights. There are rights stipulated in Islam that they still don’t have. We have come a very long way and have a short way to go.”
Such reforms have so far been limited. In addition to planning to lift the driving ban, the authorities have allowed women to hold jobs previously closed to them, such as air traffic control, border control, and traffic police. However, the male guardianship system, the most serious impediment to women’s rights, remains largely intact.
In mid-September 2017, Saudi authorities arrested dozens of people, including prominent clerics and intellectuals, in what appeared to be a coordinated crackdown on dissent. Other Saudi activists and dissidents are serving long prison terms based solely on their peaceful activism, including Waleed Abu al-Khair, Abdulaziz al-Shubaily, Mohammed al-Qahtani, Abdullah al-Hamid, Fadhil al-Manasif, Sulaiman al-Rashoodi, Abdulkareem al-Khodr, Fowzan al-Harbi, Raif Badawi, Saleh al-Ashwan, Abdulrahman al-Hamid, Zuhair Kutbi, Alaa Brinji, and Nadhir al-Majed.
“Every government that believed that the Saudi crown prince is a reformer and a champion for women should demand the immediate and unconditional release of all human rights activists,” Whitson said. “It’s not real reform if it takes place in a dystopia where rights activists are imprisoned, and freedom of expression exists just for those who publicly malign them.”