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US citizens among those arrested in Saudi Arabia crackdown

April 5, 2019

Saudi Arabia has arrested eight people this week in an attempt to silence supporters of women's rights advocates on trial in the kingdom. They are the first arrests since the killing of Jamal Khashoggi last October.

Amnesty International protesters in front of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Paris on International Women's Day
Image: Reuters/File Photo/B. Tessier

Saudi Arabia arrested eight people this week in a bid to silence supporters of detained women's rights activists, human rights groups announced on Friday. Two of those detained hold both US and Saudi passports.

The arrests come as 11 women stand trial after being arrested for campaigning for the right to drive and an end to the kingdom's system of mandatory male guardianship. The arrest and ongoing detention of the women has drawn Western condemnation.

Several of the women being held by authorities claim that they have been the victims of torture and sexual assault.

Zero tolerance for criticism

One of those arrested this week was Salah al-Haidar, a journalist whose mother Aziza al-Yousef is among the jailed women. Of the eight people that Saudi authorities allegedly arrested this week, seven were men. None of those arrested are frontline activists, but rather have voiced support for women's rights and other reforms.

Lynn Maalouf, research director of Amnesty International Middle East, a rights group, said the arrests were a message from authorities, "signaling to their entire people that there will be zero tolerance of any form of criticism, let alone questioning, of the state's authoritarian practices."

Five other people with ties to the jailed activists have also been under a travel ban since February. 

Relatives of Loujain al-Hathloul, who is currently on trial, say the government told them to stop speaking about the case, which they had previously done with US media outlets.

Walid al-Hathloul told CNN: "We stayed silent for eight months. We thought that being silent would solve the issue. We found out that at the end of the day this made the case even worse and that's why we are speaking out now."

This week's arrests, which London-based rights group ALQST says targeted writers and bloggers, came just after the trial of the 11 jailed activists resumed on Wednesday. The women face charges of speaking to foreign media outlets, diplomats and human rights groups.

Foreign media, diplomats and rights groups barred

Although three of the women standing trial were temporarily released on bail, they were forced to agree to stay away from reporters.

Foreign journalists and diplomats are barred from attending the court hearings, the next of which is scheduled to take place on April 17.

Saudi Arabia has separately arrested dozens of activists, clerics and intellectuals over the past two years in a bid to quash all opposition. 

Friday's arrests are also the first to take place since the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the government, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018.

The Khashoggi murder sparked international outrage and CIA intelligence reports say the murder was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Saudi government has denied that Salman was personally involved but admitted that state employees were.

#IAmMyOwnGuardian: Protesting male guardianship in Saudi Arabia

js/msh (AFP, Reuters)

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