Saudi writer held for backing women drivers

Columnist detained without access to lawyer for opposing driving ban on women days after women defy government order.

About 60 women claimed they got behind the wheel on Saturday to oppose the driving ban [Reuters]

Saudi authorities have detained a columnist who supported ending his country’s ban on women driving, activists said.

The activists, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, told the Associated Press news agency that Tariq al-Mubarak was called by investigators in the capital, Riyadh, over the weekend concerning a stolen car.

When he arrived at the Interior Ministry’s Criminal Investigation Department on Sunday, he was interrogated instead about his role in a campaign launched by reformers seeking the right of women to drive in the kingdom.

When his friends were informed they could pick him up at the investigator’s office, they too were detained for several hours and questioned over the campaign’s activities, activists said.

Human Rights Watch and activists who know al-Mubarak say he remains in detention with no access to a lawyer.

The New York-based organisation called for al-Mubarak’s immediate release and on authorities “to stop harassing and trying to intimidate activists and women who defied the driving ban”.

The spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Mansour al-Turki, could not be reached for comment.

In a column published in the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat the day of his arrest, al-Mubarak said extremists are intimidating people to top them exercising their rights.

He said the courts in Saudi Arabia do not have sufficient provisions to deter those who threaten and terrorise others from exercising their freedoms because “rights and freedoms … are not instilled in our culture, nor our interpretation of religion”.

Flouting driving ban

Al-Mubarak, who also works as a schoolteacher, was among a core group of active young Saudis calling for women’s right to drive.

About 60 women claimed they got behind the wheel on Saturday to oppose the ban. The campaign sparked protest by the kingdom’s ultraconservative religious establishment.

The reformers behind the October 26 driving campaign say their efforts are ongoing and that they continue to receive videos by women filming themselves flouting the driving ban.

The activists told the Associated Press that they have been followed for the past several days and are anticipating arrest.

They have put in place contingency plans and emergency numbers for journalists and rights organisations to call in case they were detained.

At least two women have been fined recently by police for driving, the activists said. Samia El-Moslimany said she was given a nearly $135 fine for driving in the kingdom, though she has a US driver’s license.

Source: AP