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Saudi crackdown: Two high-profile women activists detained

Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Saadah were among the first campaigners for women's suffrage and the right to drive in their country
Michelle Obama (left) and Hillary Clinton (right) pose with Samar Badawi of Saudi Arabia as she receives the 2012 International Women of Courage Award (AFP)

Saudi authorities have arrested two prominent women rights activists, Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Saadah, and held them incommunicado since Monday, Saudi human rights groups reported on Wednesday.

The arrests followed a spate of detentions of women's rights activists in the run-up to the end of the ban on women driving in the kingdom in late June.

Badawi is a recipient of the 2012 International Women of Courage Award by the US State Department, in recognition of her campaigning for women suffrage and her challenging of the male guardianship system in the Gulf kingdom.

Al-Saadah was amongst the first women to run for office in Saudi Arabia in 2015 as part of a campaign for women’s political rights. She was, however, disqualified and barred from running.

Like Badawi, she is also known for her advocacy against the male guardianship system which requires women to obtain the permission of a husband or male relative before making their own decisions on travelling, applying for a passport, being released from prison or shelter, or getting married.

The spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ravina Shamdasani, expressed concern in a statement on Tuesday about the ongoing arrests of women and human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia.  

“We urge the government of Saudi Arabia to unconditionally release all human rights defenders and activists who have been detained for their peaceful human rights work, including their decades-long campaigns for the lifting of the driving ban for women,” she said.

According to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), Saudi authorities have arrested at least 20 human rights defenders since 15 May 2018, many of them are women’s rights campaigners.

The defenders could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted, GCHR said.

Nassima al-Saadah, then a municipal council candidate in the Gulf coast city of Qatif, pictured here on 26 November 2015 (AFP)

Human Rights Watch called for the immediate release of Badawi and al-Saadah on Wednesday.

“The arrests of Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Saadah signal that the Saudi authorities see any peaceful dissent, whether past or present, as a threat to their autocratic rule,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

“After the recent arbitrary arrests of businesspeople, women’s rights activists, and reformist clerics, Saudi Arabia’s allies and partners should question what ‘reform’ really means in a country where the rule of law is disdainfully ignored.”

Badawi was the first person to file a lawsuit for women’s suffrage in Saudi Arabia in 2011, when she sued the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs for refusing to register her for the September municipal elections, citing the illegality of their action. 

She was also one of the earliest campaigners for women’s right to drive and filed a lawsuit against the Saudi government after it rejected her application for a driver’s licence.

In January 2016, she was arrested briefly for her advocacy for her detained brother, human rights activist Raif Badawi, now serving a 10-year sentence in a Saudi jail. Raif's case gained global attention in 2015 when he was sentenced to 1,000 lashes over charges of insulting Islam and violating Saudi's IT laws by setting up a liberal website.

In 2014, Badawi was banned from travelling after an international campaign to release her imprisoned former husband Walid Abulkhair, a human rights lawyer who is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence - reportedly making him the first human rights activist to be tried under Saudi Arabia's 2014 terrorism law.

On 24 June, Saudi Arabia lifted its decades-old ban on female drivers. However, numerous women's rights activists, men and women, who had campaigned to lift the ban were detained in the days and weeks following, prompting critics to denounce the move by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as more of a public relations stunt than a genuine commitment to human rights.

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