Human rights organisations voiced their concern over the detention of women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia, a month before the kingdom removes a ban on female drivers.
The lifting of the ban on women drivers is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman‘s reform programme.
“It is shocking that Saudi Arabia is detaining prominent women’s rights defenders – the real champions behind the lifting of the driving ban – just before they allow all women the right to drive,” Human Rights Watch’s Rothna Begum told Al Jazeera on Wednesday.
The comments came a day after the United Nations called on Saudi Arabia to provide information about nearly a dozen prominent activists – mostly women who for years urged reforms that are now being implemented – arrested this month.
It is shocking that Saudi Arabia is detaining prominent women's rights defenders - the real champions behind the lifting of the driving ban - behind bars just before they allow all women the right to drive.
The UN human rights office said the government should ensure the women and other campaigners in custody receive due process.
Amnesty International voiced similar concerns.
“We are extremely worried about the overall human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, despite the women’s driving ban being lifted in less than a month,” Kareem Chehayeb, the group’s Saudi Arabia researcher, told Al Jazeera on Wednesday.
“The recent sweeping crackdown on human rights activists this month is sadly not an anomaly. Amnesty International has documented continued arrests and harsh prison sentences of human rights activists for their peaceful activism.
“We fear these activists will be given trumped-up security-related charges.”
Riyadh announced the arrests last week and accused the activists of “suspicious contact with foreign parties”, as well as providing financial support to hostile nations and attempting the undermine the kingdom’s “security and stability”.
Those detained were also branded traitors and “agents of embassies” by state-affiliated media.
The activists, who represent several generations of Saudi feminists, could face up to 20 years in jail if found guilty.
With the crackdown on women’s rights activists coming weeks before the much-hyped lifting of the driving ban, doubts about Bin Salman’s approach to reforms in the kingdom have been revived.
“While Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman continues to present himself as a reformer, peaceful human rights activism that calls for reforms continues to be criminalised. It simply doesn’t make sense,” Chehayab said.
Begum agreed. “It’s not real reform if rights defenders are locked up for asking for simple basic human rights.”
While Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman continues to present himself as a reformer, peaceful human rights activism that calls for reforms continues to be criminalised.
Speaking at a Geneva briefing on Tuesday, UN human rights spokeswoman Liz Throssell said six women and three men are known to remain in custody and face serious allegations that “could lead to draconian sentences”.
Their exact whereabouts are unknown and most of them have only been permitted to make a single telephone call to their families since they were arrested.
Throssell called on Saudi authorities to reveal their locations and ensure their rights to due process are guaranteed.
“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,” she said.