Saudi releases three women's rights advocates arrested in crackdown

#Women

Three released elderly campaigners were among at least 11 activists detained last week

Saudi Arabia's decades-old driving ban on women is slated to end on 24 June (AFP)
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Thursday 24 May 2018 18:52 UTC
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Saudi authorities released three prominent women's rights advocates following their detention in a sweeping crackdown against activists, a month before the kingdom lifts its ban on women drivers, campaigners said on Thursday.

The three elderly campaigners were among at least 11 activists arrested last week, mostly identified by rights groups as veteran women campaigners for the right to drive and to end the conservative Islamic country's male guardianship system.

The released activists included 70-year-old Aisha al-Mana who is said to be in frail health. Mana is well-known for being part of a group that launched the first Saudi protest movement in 1990 for the right to drive.

"We can confirm the release of Aisha al-Mana, Hessa al-Sheikh and Madeha al-Ajroush, but we don't know the conditions behind it," said Samah Hadid, Amnesty International's Middle East director of campaigns.

"We call on Saudi authorities to release all other human rights defenders unconditionally and immediately."

There was no immediate comment from Saudi officials and the fate of other detained activists remains unclear.

Without naming the detainees, authorities last week accused the activists of "suspicious contact with foreign parties", providing financial support to hostile nations and attempting to undermine the kingdom's "security and stability".

State-backed media branded them traitors and "agents of embassies".

The detainees include three generations of activists. They include 28-year-old Loujain al-Hathloul, also held in 2014 for more than 70 days for attempting to drive from neighbouring United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia; and Aziza al-Yousef, a retired professor at Riyadh's King Saud University.

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights voiced concern that Hathloul, one of the most outspoken activists, was being held incommunicado, while other campaigners said the detainees had no access to lawyers and their whereabouts were unknown.

The crackdown has sparked a torrent of global criticism, casting a shadow on the kingdom's much-publicised liberalisation push launched by powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who recently undertook a global tour aimed at reshaping his kingdom's austere image.

The self-styled reformer has sought to break with long-held restrictions on women and the mixing of the genders, with the decades-old driving ban on women slated to end on 24 June.

"This wave of repression in Saudi Arabia must end," Hadid said. "These arrests are completely unjustified."