Saudi driving activist released after crackdown: campaigners

Dubai (AFP) –


Saudi authorities have released a prominent women's rights advocate following her detention in a sweeping crackdown against activists a month before the kingdom lifts its ban on women drivers, campaigners said Thursday.

Aisha al-Mana, 70, was among at least 11 activists arrested last week, mostly identified by rights groups as veteran women campaigners for the right to drive and to end the conservative Islamic country's male guardianship system.

"We can confirm Aisha al-Mana's release, but we don't know the conditions behind it," Samah Hadid, Amnesty International's Middle East director of campaigns, told AFP.

"We call on Saudi authorities to release all other human rights defenders unconditionally and immediately."

There was no immediate comment from Saudi officials and the fate of other detained activists remains unclear.

Two Saudi activists said Mana, known for being part of a group that launched the first Saudi protest movement in 1990 for the right to drive, was in frail health.

"Dr. Aisha al-Mana has been released. She... was publicised as being in poor health due to (a) heart attack last year," Saudi-American activist Nora Abdulkarim said in Twitter.

Without naming those detained, authorities last week accused the detainees of "suspicious contact with foreign parties", providing financial support to "enemies" and attempting to undermine the kingdom's "security and stability".

State-backed media branded them traitors and "agents of embassies".

The detainees include three generations of activists, including 28-year-old Loujain al-Hathloul, also held in 2014 for more than 70 days for attempting to drive from neighbouring United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia, and Aziza al-Yousef, a retired professor at Riyadh's King Saud University.

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights voiced concern that Hathloul, one of the most outspoken activists, was being held incommunicado, while other campaigners said the detainees had no access to lawyers and their whereabouts were unknown.

The crackdown has sparked a torrent of global criticism, casting a shadow on the kingdom's much-publicised liberalisation drive launched by powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who recently undertook a global tour aimed at reshaping his kingdom's austere image.

"We are concerned about the increase in arrests," Hadid said.

"This wave of repression in Saudi Arabia must end. These arrests are completely unjustified."