Saudi Arabia Cracks Down on Activists Before Ending the Driving Ban
NEW YORK (June 23, 2018) — The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) condemns the Saudi Arabian government for the ongoing crackdown on women's rights activists. The arrests started on May 15, just a few weeks before the country's infamous driving ban is scheduled to end on June 24. The arrested activists are women and men who were actively involved in the campaign to end the ban, including Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef, Aisha al-Manea, Nouf Abdulaziz, Mayya al-Zahrani, Hessah al-Sheikh, Ibrahim al-Mudaimigh, and Mohammad al-Rabea. The detainees have been wrongfully accused of "treason" and "undermining national security."
"Saudi activists have been fighting to end the driving ban for decades and they succeeded. Now that the change is about to take place, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is trying to discredit their work and disempower activists in an effort to curb future calls for reform," said Celine Assaf Boustani, HRF’s international legal associate who specializes in the MENA region. "Now more than ever, Saudi activists need all of the support they can get so they can continue their fight for freedom."
The activists were arrested in several waves. Last month, four of them, including Aisha al-Manea and Hessah al-Sheikh were released a week after they were arrested. Earlier this month, eight activists – out of a group of 17 – were temporarily released but the charges against them were not dropped. The remaining nine activists are still being held behind bars. The Public Prosecution of Saudi Arabia stated on June 2 that the 17 activists allegedly admitted that they "communicated and cooperated with individuals and organizations hostile to the Kingdom," "recruited persons in a sensitive government entity to obtain confidential information and official documents to harm the higher interests of the Kingdom," and "provided financial and moral support to hostile elements abroad." Following this statement, two more women – Nouf Abdelaziz and Mayaa al-Zahrani – were arrested for expressing solidarity with those that had been detained.
On September 26, Saudi Arabia’s king signed a royal decree that grants women the right to drive. Saudi Arabia was the last country in the world to enforce a ban on women drivers. The regime called the decision "historic," and the move won the Saudi crown prince much acclaim. However, that same day, the Saudi government made phone calls to several activists who advocated against the ban warning them not to speak to the press or provide commentary on social media.
The decision to lift the driving ban has been viewed as being a part of the crown prince's Vision 2030 reforms. In reality, the decree was a victory for courageous activists like Oslo Freedom Forum speaker Manal al-Sharif, leader of the Women2Drive campaign, as well as the recently arrested activists, including those who spent decades pressuring the Saudi government to change its policy.
During the recent wave of arrests, al-Sharif stated that she also received fresh death threats. In a conversation with HRF, she stated: "I've always dreamt of the day that I would finally be able to drive in my country, and fulfill my promise to my son that on this day, I will be there with him to take him for a ride. I did not realize how much I had to sacrifice for this day to come. Today, I am miles away from home and I won’t be there to live the change."
On June 24, al-Sharif is launching a campaign called #Miles4Freedom to call for the release of the imprisoned activists and to end the male guardianship system. Her goal is to galvanize women from all over the world to drive and dedicate the number of miles that they have driven to the campaign’s website. Instead of gathering signatures, the campaign will send the total number of miles collected to the king and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia in an open petition. The first goal of the campaign is to reach 1,000,000 miles.
HRF awarded al-Sharif the 2012 Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent and has invited her to speak in Norway and San Francisco. In her Havel Prize acceptance speech, she explained how individual actions can spark broader change, and concluded with, “The rain starts with a single drop.”
Read HRF's press release on the driving ban here.
The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies.
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Condemn the Saudi regime's crackdown on women’s rights activists.
Support Manal al-Sharif’s #Miles4Freedom campaign.
Abdallah Y. Al-Mouallimi
Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the United Nations
Phone:+1 (212) 557-1525
The Human Rights Commission in Saudi Arabia