Saudi arrests prominent women's rights activists: HRW

Former US First Lady Michelle Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pose with Samar Badawi of Saudi Arabia as she receives the 2012 International Women of Courage Award in 2012

Former US First Lady Michelle Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pose with Samar Badawi of Saudi Arabia as she receives the 2012 International Women of Courage Award in 2012

Rather, she believes it was part of a roundup of women's rights activists that began earlier this year, shortly before the government lifted a ban on women driving.

Saudi Arabian authorities have arrested two high-profile women's rights activists, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday, amid what the organisation called an "unprecedented" crackdown on dissent.

More than a dozen women's rights activists have been targeted since May in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi authorities, under the ultimate direction of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, have stepped up arrests and prosecutions of dissidents and activists since early 2017.

In a recent open letter to the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, the groups wrote: "Saudi authorities, government-aligned media, and troll accounts on social media launched a public smear campaign and labelled women human rights defenders as "traitors" and a 'danger to Saudi society and national security'".

Badawi was the first person to file a lawsuit for women's suffrage in Saudi Arabia in 2011, when she sued the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs for refusing to register her for the September municipal elections, citing the illegality of their action. In addition to her advocacy for women's equality, she has campaigned energetically for both her former husband and her brother to be released from prison.

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In 2014, Badawi was banned from travelling after an global campaign to release her imprisoned former husband Walid Abulkhair, a human rights lawyer who is now serving a 15-year prison sentence - reportedly making him the first human rights activist to be tried under Saudi Arabia's 2014 terrorism law.

"It is unclear why Saudi authorities have targeted Al-Harbi", the statement said.

Reforms have been accompanied by a heavy-handed crackdown on dissent, which has targeted clerics as well as some of the very female activists who campaigned for years to end the driving ban. While some have been released, others remain detained without charge. Activists in detention have had no access to their families or lawyers, said Ibrahim. Government-aligned media outlets have carried out an alarming campaign against them, branding them "traitors". Some activists are to be tried in the specialized criminal court, established to hear terrorism cases, where they could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.

Dr.al-Fassi, a renowned scholar and associate professor of women's history at King Saud University, was one of the first women to acquire a Saudi driver's license.

She was previously arrested in 2016 and subject to a travel ban in 2014. In Saudi Arabia there is no civic space left to shrink.

Like Badawi, she is also known for her advocacy against the male guardianship system which requires women to obtain the permission of a "male guardian" before making their own decisions on travelling, applying for a passport, being released from prison or shelter, or getting married. "Any economic vision that seeks to open up Saudi Arabia while throwing real reformers in jail may well end badly for everyone", said Whitson.

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