Saudi woman activist arrested in widening crackdown: campaigners

Dubai: Saudi Arabia has arrested a prominent women’s rights activist, campaigners said Wednesday, in a widening crackdown even as the kingdom celebrates the end of a decades-long ban on female motorists.

Hatoon al-Fassi’s detention was reported by multiple activists including London-based Saudi rights group ALQST, following a wave of arrests of women campaigners who long challenged the driving ban.

“Confirmed news on more arrests amongst Saudi female activists.. professor @HatoonALFASSI is under arrest. She actively participated in #Women2Drive campaigns,” tweeted exiled Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif.

Fassi’s family was not immediately reachable for comment and Saudi authorities did not respond to requests for comment.

Fassi, a professor at Riyadh’s King Saud University who long campaigned for the right to drive, last appeared active on Twitter on Thursday.

Fassi had been planning to drive on Sunday, when women celebrated taking the wheel for the first time in decades as the kingdom overturned the world’s only ban on female motorists.

“It is as if I have been recognised as an equal citizen,” Fassi was quoted as saying last week by Arab News, a Saudi daily, after she received a driving licence.

“I’m planning to drive with my husband and children around Riyadh. Celebrating will be the first aim, then I will see where I need to go on that day.”

The much-trumpeted driving reform is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plan to modernise the conservative kingdom.

But it has been dented by the jailing of female activists who long opposed the ban.

Authorities have said nine of 17 arrested people remain behind bars, accused of undermining security and aiding enemies of the state.

The detainees include 28-year-old Loujain al-Hathloul — also held in 2014 for more than 70 days for attempting to drive from neighbouring United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia — and Aziza al-Yousef, a retired professor at Riyadh’s King Saud University.

State-backed newspapers have published front-page pictures of some of the activists with the word “traitor” stamped across them in red.

Human Rights Watch last week said the kingdom has arrested two more female activists and many others have been barred from travelling outside the kingdom, in what it denounced as an “unrelenting crackdown”.

Even some of the crown prince’s ardent supporters have labelled the crackdown a “mistake”.

It has been seen as a calculated move both to placate clerics incensed by his modernisation drive and also to send a clear signal to activists that the prince alone is the arbiter of change.