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Saudi Arabia detains women’s rights advocates who challenged driving ban

Loujain al-Hathloul is seen driving toward the border between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia before her arrest Dec. 1, 2014. (Loujain al-Hathloul/AP)

ISTANBUL — Authorities in Saudi Arabia have in recent days detained at least seven prominent human-rights activists, including women who for years campaigned to win Saudi women the right to drive, people with knowledge of the arrests said on Friday.

The detentions appeared to be part of a broader crackdown by the Saudi leadership, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aimed at silencing political activism, even as the crown prince carries out some social changes. A Saudi government statement released early Saturday said that seven people had been arrested on charges that included “suspicious contact with foreign parties.” The statement did not name the people who were arrested.

The detentions came five weeks before women in Saudi Arabia will officially be permitted to drive — the fulfillment of a decades-long campaign by Saudi women’s rights activists, some of whom served jail time for protesting the ban.  

Those arrested over the past few days were said to include Loujain al-Hathloul, who was detained several years ago for trying to drive to Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates, and Eman Al Nafjan, a university professor and blogger who had also been arrested for defying the driving ban, according to the people briefed on the detentions who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the arrests have not been made public. 

Aisha Almana, who helped lead a seminal protest against the driving ban in Saudi Arabia in 1990, was also detained, as was Aziza Alyousef, another prominent women’s rights campaigner.

Several women’s rights advocates said that they had been warned not to speak to the news media about the lifting of the driving ban, in an apparent effort by the Saudi authorities to discourage the idea that activism can bring about social change, the women said.

Relatives of the detainees could not immediately be reached for comment.

The lifting of the driving ban is a centerpiece of the social changes directed by the crown prince, who has also curbed the authority of ultraconservative religious police and brought previously proscribed entertainment events to the kingdom, like concerts and fashion shows.  

While the lifting of the ban has been welcomed, women’s rights advocates are pushing for greater freedoms, including the repeal of a system known as “guardianship” that requires women to obtain permission from a male guardian to marry or even to travel.  

The changes in Saudi Arabia have also been accompanied by a steady drumbeat of arrests targeting perceived opponents and dissidents. In September, the authorities rounded up dozens of people, including popular Muslim clerics, and has held many without charge ever since. Two months later, hundreds of business executives, government officials and princes were arrested as part of what the authorities called a state-led effort to curb corruption.

Morris reported from Gaza.

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