Saudi Arabia Detains Women’s Rights Activists Including 2 U.S. Citizens

Saudi women walk outside a shopping mall in Riyadh on June 22, 2012. Saudi female activists have cancelled their plan to brave a driving ban, settling instead for petitioning King Abdullah to allow them to get behind the wheel, members of their group said. AFP PHOTO/FAYEZ NURELDINE (Photo credit should …
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty

Authorities in Saudi Arabia launched a crackdown on supporters of two American, one of them pregnant, and nine other local women activists who drew the ire of the Sunni kingdom for fighting for their right to drive and to end the country’s male guardianship system, several news outlets reported Friday.

The New York Times (NYT) notes:

Brushing back pressure from Washington, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia escalated his crackdown on even the mildest forms of dissent with the arrests this week of at least nine intellectuals, journalists, activists, and their family members, according to rights groups and a Saudi associate of the detainees.

Among those held are two dual Saudi-American citizens and two women — one of them pregnant, the groups said. Many of the detainees are suspected of having complained to Western journalists and rights groups about the treatment of imprisoned women’s activists, according to a Saudi national briefed on the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss confidential information.

The crackdown came amid allegations of torture and sexual assault at the hands of authorities in some of Saudi Arabia’s detention centers, holding a range of individuals from hardened criminals to women accused of activism and supporting women’s rights. Local law enforcement denies the claims.

Reuters notes:

Their [11 women] case has intensified criticism of Riyadh’s rights record, already in the spotlight after last year’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. …The women on trial were arrested last May and branded as traitors. At least one of them has been charged under the kingdom’s cybercrime law and faces up to five years in prison.

Five men arrested at the same time [as the women] are not on trial. Rights groups say two of them have been released, but the others’ status is unclear. Another U.S.-Saudi national, Walid al-Fitaihi, has been detained since 2017 under Riyadh’s anti-corruption campaign. His son told U.S. senators last month he had been tortured in detention, including electric shocks and whipping.

Among the [11 women] detainees are “U.S. national journalist Salah al-Haidar, whose mother Aziza al-Yousef is among those on trial, and Bader al-Ibrahim, a doctor and author of a book about Shi’ite Muslim politics, the associate and London-based Saudi rights group ALQST said,” Reuters added.

The U.S. Department of State (DOS) reportedly confirmed the arrest of the two American women, saying President Donald Trump’s administration has “engaged the Saudi government in this regard,” without elaborating further.

Reuters attempted to extract a comment from the Saudi government communications office and the American embassy in Riyadh, to no avail.

Lynn Maalouf, the Middle East research director for Amnesty International, argued that Saudi authorities are “signaling to their entire people that there will be zero tolerance of any form of criticism, let alone questioning, of the state’s authoritarian practices.”

“The temporary release of three of the women on trial last week by a Riyadh court raised hopes of a more lenient approach after months of lobbying and pleading by Western governments, but the new arrests may signal that the authorities are resisting international pressure and seeking to pursue tougher penalties,” Reuters points out.

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