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Saudi Arabia running “smear campaign” against right-to-drive activists

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Susan Devaney
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The women behind the movement in Saudi to allow women to drive believe they’ve been targeted by a smear campaign in the kingdom. 

Weeks before the driving ban placed on women in Saudi Arabia is due to be lifted, many of the kingdom’s leading female activists have been detained and are being victimised by a “smear campaign”, according to international human rights observers.

At the time of writing, at least 10 prominent campaigners – including Eman al-Nafjan, Aziz al-Yousef, Dr Aisha al-Manea, Dr Ibrahim al-Modeimigh, and Mohammad al-Rabea – have all been detained in Saudi Arabia.

The group have been accused of being “traitors” and working with foreign powers – charges Amnesty International called “blatant intimidation tactics”.

Pictures of some of the women have also appeared in social media posts with the hashtag, #AgentsofEmbassies. 

“We know of at least nine individuals who have been arrested whose names are circulating on social media. We believe there are nine confirmed, but we fear that there may be others who will arrested in the coming days,” Hiba Zayadin, of Human Rights Watch, told The Guardian

“Some of those named – and others – were called in by officials in September after the announcement that the driving ban was being lifted, and told not to speak out in favour.

“So far as we know they complied, so we don’t know why this is being done. But the vicious smear campaign against them has been quite unprecedented.”

Saudi native Manal al-Sharif (who currently lives in Australia) has also spoken out about the death threats she has received on Twitter, calling it an “organised defamation campaign”, and comparing it to the campaign that targeted the movement in 2011.

“The cowardly trolls tweets attacking and threatening in my timeline. Same old trolls who hide behind fake accounts. Are we back to square one?,” she wrote on Sunday 20 May. 

Experts believe that the government wants to suppress the idea that activism can lead to legislative change.

“This is an extremely worrying development for women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia,” said Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East director of campaigns.

“The Saudi Arabian authorities’ endless harassment of women’s rights defenders is entirely unjustifiable.

“Saudi Arabia cannot continue to publicly proclaim support for women’s rights and other reforms, while targeting women human rights defenders and activists for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

“We are calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all activists who may still be detained solely for their human rights work.”

Manal al-Sharif has spoken out about the death threats she’s been receiving on Twitter

The World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap report scored the kingdom at 141 out of 145 countries – which is due, in part, to the fact that women must have the permission of a male guardian to work, study, travel or marry.

In recent months the very conservative kingdom has undergone multiple changes. The changes come as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 programme which aims to broaden Saudi’s economy and lessen its dependency on oil.

However, Amnesty International has widely criticised the Crown Prince in regards to the arrests which have been made in the kingdom. 

“Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has presented himself as a ‘reformer’, but such promises fall flat amid the intensifying crackdown on dissenting voices in the kingdom,” it said.

“His pledges amount to very little if those who fought for the right to drive are now all behind bars for peacefully campaigning for freedom of movement and equality.”

The driving ban placed on women is due to be lifted on 24 June.

You can read more about the restrictions placed on women in the kingdom here.

Images: Getty