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Saudi Arabia arrests eight writers and entrepreneurs in latest crackdown

People taken from their homes in Riyadh and Jeddah, according to a London-based Saudi rights group
Sources said those detained are not frontline activists (AFP)

Saudi Arabia has detained at least eight people, including intellectuals, writers and entrepreneurs, the London-based Saudi rights group ALQST and one other source have said, as a two-year crackdown on free expression in the kingdom continues.

Those detained were taken from their homes in the capital Riyadh and the Red Sea port city of Jeddah last week by plainclothes police over unclear motives, one of the sources told Reuters news agency.

The Saudi government communications office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday from Reuters.

Riyadh denies having political prisoners, but senior Saudi officials have said monitoring and potentially detaining activists is needed to maintain social stability.

Those detained are not frontline activists, the sources said. Some are intellectuals who have published articles or appeared on television, while others are entrepreneurs.

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As Riyadh 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, the arrest of women's rights activists and its involvement in the devastating Yemen war.

Earlier this year, official Saudi sources announced the mass execution of 37 prisoners, including one who was crucified. The majority of those executed were Shia Saudis arrested over protests and activism, with several under 18 at the time of their arrest.

The court cases in which many of the 130 or more people were sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia before being executed this year have been criticised for lack of due process, including the use of torture against detainees and forced confessions.

Even as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has touted economic and social openness in the traditionally closed-off country, authorities have rounded up critics, an effort that gathered pace in September 2017 with the arrest of prominent clerics, 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 portrayed them as traitors, and a court has charged some of them with crimes including contacts with foreign journalists.

This April, eight people who had supported the detained women, including two dual Saudi-US citizens, 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.

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