The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ten women just got Saudi driver’s licenses. Women who campaigned to drive are still in prison.

Esraa Albuti, an executive director at Ernst and Young, shows her new driver's license June 4 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (CIC/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Ten women in Saudi Arabia were issued driver's licenses this week, the first women in decades to be given the paperwork that will allow them to legally drive in the kingdom. The women already had valid licenses from other countries, which allowed them to qualify for Saudi licenses ahead of June 24, when a countrywide ban on women driving will be reversed. They will not be allowed to take to the roads until then.

Saudi Arabia is the only country that prohibits women from driving. But what should have been a landmark moment for the kingdom was overshadowed by the recent arrests of women who had campaigned for the right to drive there.

In recent weeks, a number of people have been arrested on charges of trying to undermine Saudi Arabia's security, but groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said the arrests homed in on activists. Amnesty said women who advocated for women's rights, including Loujain Hathloul, Aziza Alyousef and Eman al-Nafjan, were among those arrested. The crackdown seems to contradict Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's public relations campaign highlighting his efforts to modernize Saudi Arabia.

Hathloul already served time in 2014 for driving from the United Arab Emirates and trying to cross into Saudi Arabia. Three women who participated in a 1990 protest of the driving ban also were arrested but have since been released.

Late last month, U.N. human rights spokeswoman Liz Throssell said activists were facing charges that “could lead to draconian sentences.”

“If, as it appears, their detention is related solely to their work as human rights defenders and activists on women’s issues, they should be released immediately,” Throssell said.

Although some of those held in detention have been released, at least four women and five men remain in prison, according to the Associated Press.

Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East director of campaigns, said that “the Saudi Arabian authorities’ endless harassment of women’s rights activists is entirely unjustifiable.”

“European and world leaders must not stay silent in the face of gross and systematic violations of the human rights of activists and human rights defenders,” she said.

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