Saudi authorities have released two prominent women's rights activists, but continue to hold at least eight others in a sweep targeting prominent icons of the women's rights movement, activists and rights groups said Thursday. They have been branded as traitors by the Saudi government and absurdly charged with working with foreign entities to destabilize the kingdom.
Calling bin Salman's meteoric rise to power into question, bin Farhan said, "If King Salman had been in a good state of health, things wouldn't have reached this stage".
Despite apparently complying with Saudi Arabia's attempts to silence her - Hathloul's last tweet to her 316,000 followers was on March 12 - she was arrested again last week in what appeared to be a particularly brutal crackdown on female activists in the kingdom.
King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, drew worldwide plaudits a year ago when they announced the ban on female drivers would end on June 24. "It is a blessing that the king and royal family have bestowed upon the people in Saudi Arabia", he said.
People familiar with the arrests say the activists were allowed just one phone call to anxious relatives a week ago, and that one of the women has been held entirely incommunicado.
The Gulf Centre for Human Rights voiced concern that Hathloul, one of the most outspoken activists, was being held incommunicado, while other campaigners said the detainees were without any access to lawyers and their whereabouts were unknown. They were accused of crimes including "suspicious contact with foreign parties" and undermining the "security and stability" of Saudi Arabia, and they have been publicly vilified in pro-government media in what activists have described as a vicious smear campaign.
Over the past years, authorities have steadily cracked down on human rights defenders, including some dozen members of the now dissolved Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights, known by its Arabic acronym HASEM.
Saudi authorities on Saturday announced the arrest of seven people, mostly identified by rights groups as women who have long campaigned for the right to drive and to end the conservative Muslim state's male guardianship system.
The prince, who hasn't set foot in his home country since 2013, has shared his stance on the situation in Saudi Arabia in an exclusive interview with the Middle East Eye on Monday. He also reined in the country's religious police, who enforce strict rules of public behavior that fall most heavily on women. "It's alarming", she said.
"When the driving ban lift was announced past year. a lot of people felt empowered and thought there might be some acceptance for people to be part of the decision-making by the ruling family. but that was never the case", she said, also on condition of anonymity.
Three generations of activists were targeted, including Loujain al-Hathloul, a 28-year-old social media figure; Aziza Al-Yousef, a 60-year-old mother of five; and Eman Al-Nafjan, a university professor and popular blogger.
Al-Mana was not among the seven involved in trying to establish the NGO, but al-Sheikh was, according to activists who spoke to the AP. "Writing about the place of women in Saudi society is not a crime".
In recent years, she has been cautious about voicing her opinion on Twitter out of concern over a growing crackdown on rights advocates. "It might be an overreaction to please the traditionalists, as we come to the date of women being allowed to drive".
To make matters worse, the arrests of Saudi free thinkers have been made in the name of national security.
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