Concern over Saudi arrests of women's rights activists

Saudi Arabia passed a draft law Wednesday that criminalizes sexual harassment less than a month before the stridently conservative country lifts a decades-old ban against women driving. "Driving, although probably the main reason for it, is not the only one", Shura council member Hoda Al-Helaissi told the site.

They are also at risk of being eclipsed by the recent arrests of 11 rights activists, many of them identified as veteran campaigners for women's rights to drive.

It is shocking that Saudi Arabia is detaining prominent women's rights defenders - the real champions behind the lifting of the driving ban - behind bars just before they allow all women the right to drive.

The draft bill "is a very important addition to the history of regulations in the kingdom", Shura Council member Latifa al-Shaalan was quoted as saying in an Information Ministry statement.

Calling the new law a "qualitative leap" in the fight against sexual harassment, leading lawyer Dimah Alsharif told Arab News that the end of the driving ban focused attention on the issue of potential harassment.

In some cases, such as repeat offenders, the sentence could be increased to five years in prison and fines of up to $80,000.


A Saudi activist has revealed that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has not been seen in public over the past few weeks, was actually shot and injured in heavy gunfire reported from outside the royal palace in the capital Riyadh late last month.

"It is a deterrent law compared to a number of other laws in other countries", she said.

But rights activists have urged caution following the detention of almost a dozen activists, a lot of them women who had campaigned for greater freedoms.

Among those still detained are Lojain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Najfan, Aziza al-Yousef, Mohammed al-Rabea and Ibrahim Modaimeegh.

The Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association had called for broad political reform, put forth interpretations of Islamic law that support a constitutional monarchy, and called out the government for abusive practices such as arbitrary detentions, and arrests of people peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression and association.

"If, as it appears, their detention is related exclusively to their work as human rights defenders and activists on women's issues, they should be released immediately", she said.


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