DUBAI: Saudi Arabia has arrested at least seven writers and bloggers, including two US citizens, in an apparent crackdown on supporters of detained women activists whose trial has drawn global censure, campaigners said Friday.
News of the arrests comes the morning after US lawmakers voted to end military support for a Saudi-led war in neighbouring Yemen, which has triggered what the UN describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
It also marks the first major crackdown since the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October. The murder has sparked unprecedented international scrutiny of the kingdom’s human rights record.
London-based rights group ALQST identified the US-Saudi dual nationals as writer and doctor Bader al-Ibrahim and Salah al-Haidar, the son of Aziza al-Yousef — a high-profile activist who was temporarily released last week but remains on trial along with other women’s rights campaigners.
ALQST said all seven arrested were “writers and social media bloggers previously engaged in public discourse on reforms” and the crackdown was linked to their support of women activists on trial.
– ‘Pressure to stay silent’ –
Prisoners of Conscience, a Saudi group that tracks political prisoners, put the number of people arrested at 10.
There was no immediate comment from Saudi authorities or the US embassy in Riyadh.
“What is disturbing about new Saudi arrests is that waves of arrests keep moving from most-known to successively lesser knowns,” Saudi-American activist Nora Abdulkarim said on Twitter.
“Another confusing aspect is timing, leaves one asking: ‘why now?'”
Saudi Arabia faces international criticism over the ongoing trial of 11 women, some of whom allegedly faced torture and sexual abuse during nearly a year in detention, on charges that include contact with foreign media, diplomats and human rights groups.
Most of the women were detained last summer in a wide-ranging crackdown against campaigners just before the historic lifting of a decades-long ban on female motorists.
Three of them — Aziza, blogger Eman al-Nafjan and preacher Rokaya al-Mohareb — were granted temporary release last week.
Before their provisional release, the three freed women and their bail guarantors were made to sign a pledge that they will stay away from the media, according to multiple people with access to the trial.
The siblings of one of the prominent detainees, activist Loujain al-Hathloul, this week said they were being pressured by people close to the Saudi state to stay silent over her treatment in detention.
“Pressure from all sides to remain silent,” her sister Alia al-Hathloul, who is based overseas, tweeted without naming anyone.
People close to the Saudi establishment have warned that public criticism by family members could prolong their detention.
“We were silent and the worst kinds of torture happened while we were silent,” said Alia.
“I can shut up, but only when Loujain is with us and those who tortured her are put on trial.”
At an emotionally charged hearing last week, some women broke down as they accused interrogators of subjecting them to electric shocks, flogging and groping in detention, two people with access to the trial told AFP.
A Saudi prosecutor roundly rejected the accusations in the latest court hearing on Wednesday, witnesses said, reiterating the government’s stance.