Saudi Arabia has detained at least eight people, mostly intellectuals and writers, London-based Saudi rights group ALQST said, amid a two-year crackdown on free expression in the kingdom.
They were taken from their homes in the capital Riyadh and the Red Sea port city of Jeddah last week by plain-clothes police, but the reason was unclear, it said.
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Yahya Assiri, ALQST’s director, said the latest arrests reflect a wider clampdown that has been happening in the kingdom for some time.
“Some people may be asking why these arrests are taking place now, but in truth they reflect a harsh crackdown on Saudi civil society that has been ongoing for years,” Assiri told Al Jazeera in an email.
“Like the dozens of clerics arrested in September 2017, the women’s rights advocates arrested in the summer of 2018, and the 14 activists arrested in April 2019 – these writers arrested over the past few days are the latest civil society members to be targeted.”
The human rights group said journalists, writers, and entrepreneurs were arrested including: Bader Al-Rashed, Sulaiman Al-Saikhan Al-Nasser, Waad Al-Mohaya, Musab Fouad Al-Abdulkarim, Abdul Majid al-Balawi, Abdulaziz Alehis, Abdulrahman Monthly and Fouad Al-Farhan.
No immediate comment was available from the Saudi government .
Riyadh denies having political prisoners, but senior officials have said monitoring activists, and potentially detaining them, is needed to maintain social stability.
Those detained are not frontline activists, sources told Reuters news agency. Some are intellectuals who have published articles or appeared on television, while others are businesspeople.
As Saudi Arabia takes over the presidency of the Group of 20 countries, it is struggling to overcome intense international criticism over its human rights record, including last year’s killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a team of Saudi agents and the devastating war in Yemen.
Assiri called on the international community to denounce the most recent detentions.
“With these latest arrests, the Saudi authorities are showing once again that nobody is safe. It is clear that the international community must apply much more pressure for these violations to stop,” he said.
As Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman touted economic and social openness in the traditionally closed-off country, the authorities rounded up critics, an effort that gathered pace in September 2017 with the arrests of prominent religious leaders, some of whom could now face the death penalty.
An anti-corruption campaign two months later netted top businessmen and senior officials. It was criticised as a power play and shakedown of the crown prince’s potential political rivals.
In mid-2018, more than a dozen women’s rights activists were arrested just as Riyadh lifted a ban on women driving cars. Local media tarred them as traitors, and a court has charged some of them with crimes including contacts with foreign journalists.
This April, eight people, including two United States citizens, who had supported the detained women, were also arrested.
Public protests, political parties and labour unions are banned in Saudi Arabia, where the media are controlled and criticism of the royal family can lead to prison.