Human rights groups say Saudi Arabia has escalated its crackdown on women’s rights activists, bringing the number of arrested to at least 11 and labeling them “traitors”.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said the sweep has widened in recent days with the number of those arrested now more than double from five days earlier.
Over the weekend, pro-regime news outlets published the names and photographs of those detained in what rights groups dubbed a “smear campaign“.
They may face charges for “suspicious contact with foreign parties” and undermining “stability,” according to the Presidency for State Security, an office which reports to the king.
Those arrested reportedly include prominent women’s rights defenders Loujain al-Hathloul. She had long advocated for ending the ban on women driving in the kingdom, and was detained in 2014 for more than 70 days for trying to post an online video of herself driving.
Saudi paper Okaz has given a stern warning to other human rights campaigners by reporting that seven of those arrested could now face death penalty.
The widening sweep has prompted international outrage, with rights groups saying the crackdown is discrediting claims by the crown prince to be a “liberalizing reformer”.
Human Rights Watch said Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should be thanking the activists for their contributions to the Saudi women’s rights movement.
“Instead, the Saudi authorities appear to be punishing these women’s rights champions for promoting a goal bin Salman alleges to support — ending discrimination against women,” Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director said.
Amnesty International also said “a PR campaign calling yourself a reformer means nothing if you are arresting peaceful activists simply because they are calling for reforms.”
Saudi Arabia is the last country in the world to permit women to obtain driving licenses.
In September last year, Riyadh removed the driving ban on women as part of reforms to undo the damage the ultraconservative kingdom has suffered for decades of human rights violations.
In 2016, Saudi Arabia was ranked 141 out of 144 on the Global Gender Gap Index.
In recent years, the Al Saud regime has come under intense pressure by rights groups for mistreating women.
Saudi women were banned from voting until 2015.