Authorities in Saudi Arabia arrested four women’s rights activists who campaigned for the lifting of a ban on women driving cars last week.
Local media outlets reported that authorities arrested activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef and Aisha Almane, as well as four other male activists.
According to a state security spokesman, they were charged with “suspicious contact with foreign entities to support their activities, recruiting some persons in charge of sensitive government positions, and providing financial support to hostile elements outside the country.”
The spokesman added that the women sought to “destabilize the kingdom and breach its social structure and mar the national consistency.”
The arrests come just under a month before the Kingdom is scheduled to lift its ban on women drivers, a reform they announced last year as part of the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s plan to expand women’s rights.
Pressure against the reform’s implementation has grown in recent weeks. A high-profile campaign on social media and across Saudi media reportedly launched recently denouncing women’s rights activists as “traitors.”
The group Amnesty International condemned the arrests, adding that it raised serious concerns over the seriousness of the Prince’s liberal reforms.
“This is an extremely worrying development for women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia,” said Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East Director of Campaigns. “The Saudi Arabian authorities’ endless harassment of women’s rights defenders is entirely unjustifiable.”
“Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has presented himself as a ‘reformer’, but his promises of reform seem entirely superficial as the repression of human rights activists continues unabated,” he continued.
The organization Human Rights Watch also condemned the arrests as part of a wider crackdown against political dissidence.
“Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s ‘reform campaign’ has been a frenzy of fear for genuine Saudi reformers who dare to advocate publicly for human rights or women’s empowerment,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“The message is clear that anyone expressing skepticism about the crown prince’s rights agenda faces time in jail,” she continued.
Despite some of Bin Salman’s recent reforms, which include the legalization of yoga, allowing women to attend football matches, and providing opportunities to work in the Ministry of Justice, the Kingdom remains one of the most repressive places on earth for women due to its strict adherence of Islamic law, or Sharia.
The country uses a system of guardianship, where women must ask permission from their spouse for nearly all social activity.