The group of five women and two men was taken into custody on 18 May campaigning for women's right to drive. Deemed a threat to national security, they could get 20 years in prison. For Saudi activist, the arrests were a message to silence critics. Many doubts dog reform plans by Saudi crown prince and the authorities’ real commitment to change.
Riyadh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – “I thought, 'Finally, I can dream of a new society. But right now, I see my dream being shattered’,” said Manal al-Sharif, 39-year-old Saudi activist who now lives in Australia, alarmed by the arrest of a group of women's rights activists.
Al Sharif is one of the human rights advocates calling for the release of the seven activists - five women and two men – taken into custody on 18 May before the ban on women drivers is lifted on 24 June.
The group of activists, branded a threat to national security, could face up to 20 years in jail, if found guilty.
Whilst 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.
Before moving to Sydney, Al-Sharif was arrested for driving in violation of the ban, which could have cost her ten lashes.
Since the campaigners were arrested last week, al-Sharif has received death threats, a reminder of the "alarming" tactic used to silence dissent in the conservative kingdom.
For al-Sharif, the arrests are a way to tell women's rights activists to keep quiet about the right to drive.
The latest development casts a shadow on the actual commitment of Saudi authorities to change in accordance with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Vision 2030 plans.
For Rothna Begum, a women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, “these women's rights activists are demanding more than just the lifting of the driving ban."
In fact, women in the Wahhabi kingdom have to put up with a lot of restrictions. They must cover their hair and body in public, and they cannot travel or receive medical treatment without the permission of a male guardian (usually father, husband or son).