Rights groups demand release of Saudi women driving activists

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi Arabia have detained at least 10 women’s rights activists. The arrests are seen as a possible crackdown against dissent in the kingdom

Authorities in Saudi Arabia detained several women's rights activists who campaigned for women's driving rights just weeks before the country is set to lift the ban on women driving.

Saudi Arabia has described these activists as "traitors" and has left public opinion divided, with those backing the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmam's sweeping reforms supporting the arrests.

While it was not immediately clear why the group was detained, social media posts on government-affiliated accounts accuse the activists of treason and maintaining ties to foreign entities.

"In March again, Loujain al-Hathloul - one of the women who has recently been arrested - was arrested around the time of the lead-up to [Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman just before he went on his world tour to show what a reformer he is on Saudi Arabia", Begum added.

Saudi activists claim that the guardianship issue is at the core of the fight for women's rights.

Ending a decades-old ban on women driving has been hailed as proof of a new progressive trend in the country, but has been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, including dozens of arrests last September that appeared to pave the way for lifting the driving ban.

The prince also warned that Europe and the U.S. would have to "foot the bill" of the collapse of the Saudi state, which he said is the direction the country is headed.

Activists told the AP that seven of those detained were involved in efforts to establish a non-governmental organization called "Amina" that would offer support and shelter to victims of domestic abuse.

In recent weeks, activists say dozens of women's rights campaigners have also been banned from traveling overseas.

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Charges also include financial support to these individuals to undermine the security and stability of the country, according to SAPRAC.

Saudi activists say social change will only be cosmetic without dismantling the kingdom's rigid guardianship system, which requires women to seek permission from a male relative to study, travel and other activities. On June 24, when Saudi women will be allowed to get behind the wheel for the first time, there will be countrywide celebrations and global adulation of MBS's reformist ways.

Women in Saudi Arabia will be allowed to start driving in the ultra-conservative kingdom from 24 June, the kingdom announced earlier this month. They were mostly women, but also included three men.

Women who previously participated in protests against the driving ban told Reuters past year that two dozen activists had received phone calls instructing them not to comment on the decree lifting it.

She said veteran campaigners were already wary of the crown prince's feted reforms, because they came in parallel to an "aggressive" foreign policy in neighbouring Yemen and the wider region.

He is also seen as the architect of the three-year-long Saudi-led invasion of neighboring Yemen, which has killed and displaced tens of thousands, and a key proponent of maximum regional and worldwide pressure on regional powerhouse Iran.

"I would like to say to Europeans that the situation in Saudi Arabia resembles a volcano that is about to erupt".

Discussing last year's so-called anti-corruption campaign, which was led by Mohammed bin Salman, Prince Khaled bin Farhan said, "It was a shock for the entire family because prominent figures in the family were detained in a way that held a great deal of humiliation".

The country also commenced its first fashion week showcasing worldwide designers and proposed a program that calls for an end to the draconian gender segregation that has been followed in the kingdom for a very long time.

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