Saudi Arabia has temporarily released eight people accused of communicating with organisations hostile to the kingdom, but is holding nine others in detention, state news agency SPA reported on Saturday.
In a statement, the public prosecutor said the detainees had admitted to communicating and cooperating with individuals and organisations opposed to the kingdom, recruiting people to get secret information to harm the country’s interests, and offering material and moral support to hostile elements abroad.
At least 17 people have been arrested, eight of whom have been temporarily released including five women and three men “until the completion of their procedural review”.
The statement did not identify the detainees.
Nine people, five men and four women, remain in detention “after sufficient evidence was made available and for their confessions of charges attributed to them”.
The government announced two weeks ago that seven people had been arrested for suspicious contacts with foreign entities and offering financial support to “foreign enemies”, and said other suspects were being sought. It did not name the detainees.
International human rights organisations have reported the detention of at least 11 activists since mid-May. Those arrested were mostly women who previously campaigned for the right to drive and an end to the kingdom’s male guardianship system, which requires women to obtain the consent of a male relative for major decisions, rights groups said.
On Friday, Amnesty International said that four activists had been released. It added that the conditions of their release were unknown.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement last week that the “Saudi government seems so consumed with silencing dissent that even activists who have gone quiet for fear of retribution are being targeted again.”
She added: “The Saudi authorities should be concerned that the chill created by this new wave of repression will lead the country’s allies to question how serious Saudi Arabia is about changing its approach to women’s rights,” she added.
The UN human rights office (OHCHR) has also condemned the arrests and called on Saudi Arabia to release the activists.
“If, as it appears, their detention is related solely to their work as human rights defenders and activists on women’s issues, they should be released immediately,” OHCHR spokeswoman Liz Throssell said at a press briefing on Tuesday.
The agency called on Saudi Arabia to provide information about the arrested activists and ensure their legal rights were guaranteed.
ALQAST, an independent Saudi human rights organisation, rejected the government charges against the human rights activists in a statement published on its website on Saturday.
“ALQAST insists communication is a basic right of civil society, and the authorities are trying to criminalise human rights work,” the statement said.
Activists and diplomats have speculated that the new wave of arrests may be aimed at appeasing conservative elements opposed to social reforms pushed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MBS. It may also be a message to activists not to push demands out of sync with the government’s own agenda, they said.
On Sunday, the chief of Saudi Arabia’s religious police, officially known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, hailed the prosecutor’s statement and warned against groups and individuals who “target the government’s security and stability”.
State-backed media had labelled those held as “agents of embassies”, unnerving diplomats in Saudi Arabia, a key ally of the United States.
MBS has courted Western allies in a bid to open up the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom and diversify its oil-dependent economy, the region’s largest.