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Saudi Arabia approves measure to criminalise sexual harassment

Anti-harassment measure introduces a jail sentence of up to five years and an $80,000 fine, though women's activists remain incarcerated
Saudi Arabia's social reforms appear overshadowed by the recent arrests of at least 11 activists. (Reuters)

Saudi Arabia's cabinet on Tuesday approved a measure criminalising sexual harassment, state news agency SPA reported, in the midst of a crackdown on human rights activists in the country. 

The legislation, which awaits an expected royal decree to become law, is the latest in a series of decisions by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who has presented himself as a reformist.

The crown prince is also trying to diversify the Arab world's largest economy away from oil exports and open up Saudis' cloistered lifestyles by easing strict social rules and promoting entertainment. At the same time, MbS has been at the helm of a crackdown on dissent, which has seen scores imprisoned, tortured and stripped of their assets.

Women's rights activists, in particular, have been targeted in recent weeks, with at least 11 detained in the days leading up to this latest measure criminalising sexual harassment.

Human Rights Watch voiced concern on Wednesday over the "vague charges" the activists are facing, adding that many of the country's activists have disappeared from the activism sphere following the arrests. 

“The Saudi government seems so consumed with silencing dissent that even activists who have gone quiet for fear of retribution are being targeted again,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

“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.”

Human rights groups questioned MBS's reform agenda earlier this month following the latest arrests. The activists, both women and men, have campaigned for a woman's right to drive, which the conservative kingdom is set to grant from next month after banning it for decades.

The anti-harassment measure, which was approved on Monday by the Shura Council advisory body, introduces a jail sentence of up to five years and a 300,000 riyals ($80,000) fine.

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The draft bill "is a very important addition to the history of regulations in the kingdom," Shura Council member Latifa al-Shaalan was quoted as saying in an Information Ministry statement.

"It fills a large legislative vacuum, and it is a deterrent," she added.

Last year’s decision to end the ban on women driving cars, set to take effect on 24 June, has been hailed as proof of a progressive trend in the kingdom. However, the activists' arrest has overshadowed the move. 

Authorities have accused the activists of "suspicious contact with foreign parties," providing financial support to "enemies" and attempting to undermine the kingdom's "security and stability".

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Reports in state-backed media branded some of the detainees traitors and "agents of embassies".

At least four detained activists were released last week, but the fate of the others remains unclear.

Among those still detained are Lojain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Najfan, Aziza al-Yousef, Mohammed al-Rabea and Ibrahim Modaimeegh. According to Human Rights Watch, al-Hathloul, who has been arrested at least twice before for defying the driving ban on women, is being held incommunicado. 

"Given the significant loosening of certain restrictions on women's activities in Saudi Arabia... it is perplexing why both women and men engaged in campaigning for such positive developments are now being targeted by the authorities," the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement.

"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."

Saudi authorities have so far not commented publicly on the detentions.

MEE news services contributed to this report.

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