DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Saudi authorities have released three prominent women’s rights activists, but continue to hold at least seven others in a sweep targeting prominent icons of the country’s women’s rights movement, activists and rights groups said Thursday.
The three women released — Aisha al-Mana, Hessah al-Sheikh and Madeha al-Ajroush— are longtime advocates of women’s rights and took part in the first protest in 1990 against the kingdom’s ban on women driving.
Amnesty International and people familiar with the case said the conditions of the women’s release remain unknown. Those familiar with the arrests spoke with The Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions.
Activists and rights groups say those still detained — four women and three men — have been interrogated without access to lawyers and have been allowed just one phone call to relatives since their arrest last week. One of the women, Loujain al-Hathloul, has been held entirely incommunicado since her arrest May 15.
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The detentions are seen as a culmination of a steady crackdown on perceived critics of the government. In recent weeks, activists say dozens of women’s rights campaigners have also been banned from traveling abroad.
The arrests have cast a pall over recent social openings being pushed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, including a historic decision to lift the world’s only ban on women driving next month.
The arrests have also attracted negative publicity amid the crown prince’s efforts to brand himself as a “reformer.”
“He wants to rule without so much as a whisper of criticism,” wrote the Washington Post’s editorial board this week. “The crown prince seeks to modernize the kingdom but seems not to recognize the essential role of freedom in a modern society.”
Several of those detained in this latest sweep are successful professionals. The three women who were released are especially well-regarded in their fields.
Al-Mana, 70, is the director of Al-Mana General Hospitals and the Mohammad Al-Mana College of Health Sciences. She completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the U.S. in sociology. In 1980, she became one of the first Saudi women to obtain a Ph.D., also in the U.S.
Al-Mana has established a scholarship program for Saudi women to study global health at her alma mater, the University of Oregon. She also established a $2 million endowment at the American University of Beirut for students pursuing advanced degrees in nursing and health sciences.
Al-Sheikh, meanwhile, hails from a prominent family in Saudi Arabia and is a professor at King Saud University. She volunteers with various charities and co-authored a study published this year in partnership with Rutgers University that examines Saudi women’s advocacy.
Al-Ajroush is a psychotherapist in her mid-60s who runs a private therapy practice in the capital, Riyadh. She previously helped initiate a nationwide program in Saudi Arabia to provide support for domestic abuse victims and train police and courts on how to receive and treat such victims.
The release of the three women signals a possible breakthrough for those still held.
In addition to al-Hathloul, who has been held incommunicado, prominent activists Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Najfan remain under arrest in an unknown location. Ibrahim al-Mudaimigh, one of the kingdom’s most well-known lawyers, is also among those detained. He holds a doctorate from Harvard Law School and has offered legal representation to activists in the kingdom.
The sweep against the group began last week when police arrested the 10 and transferred them to the city of Jiddah, where the king, crown prince and top officials are working during the month of Ramadan.
Saudi media say the arrests were carried out by forces under the direction of the crown prince.
The Interior Ministry has not named those arrested but said the group is being investigated for communicating with “foreign entities,” working to recruit people in sensitive government positions and providing money to foreign circles with the aim of destabilizing and harming the kingdom.
Pro-government media outlets have accused the group of being traitors and of belonging to a “spy cell”.
Activists told the AP that seven of those detained were involved in efforts to establish a non-governmental organization called “Amina” that would offer support and shelter to victims of domestic abuse. They had recently submitted their request to the government to establish the NGO.
Al-Mana was not among the seven involved in trying to establish the NGO, but al-Sheikh and al-Ajroush were, according to activists who spoke to the AP.
Over the past years, authorities have steadily cracked down on human rights advocates under a sweeping anti-terrorism law dating back to 2014, which defines acts as vague as “defaming the state’s reputation” as terrorism.
The crown prince last year detained dozens of perceived critics of his foreign policies, and many remain imprisoned without charges or trial. He also led an unprecedented shakedown of top princes and businessmen, forcing them to hand over significant portions of their wealth in exchange for their freedom as part of a purported anti-corruption campaign.