RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi Arabia's prosecutor said Sunday that 17 people have been detained on suspicion of trying to undermine security and stability, a case activists say has targeted women's rights campaigners just weeks before the country lifts its ban on women driving.
The statement from the Public Prosecutor's office did not name those detained, and said eight have been temporarily released.
Activists and rights group say that among those released are Aisha al-Mana, Hessah al-Sheikh and Madeha al-Ajroush— three longtime advocates of women's rights who took part in the first protest in 1990 against the kingdom's ban on women driving. A nurse and mother, Walaa al-Shubbar, who spoke out in support of women's rights, was also briefly detained and released.
The prosecutor's statement said five men and four women are still being held with "sufficient evidence against them, as well as their confession to the charges."
The statement said the accused admitted to communicating with people and organizations hostile to the kingdom, recruiting people in a sensitive government entity to obtain confidential information to harm the kingdom, and providing financial and moral support to hostile elements abroad.
Among those detained since May 15 are Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan, according to people with knowledge of the arrests who've spoken to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions. The three women still being held are among the most well-known women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia.
Also believed to still be detained are Ibrahim al-Mudaimigh, a lawyer with a doctorate from Harvard Law School who's provided legal representation to human rights activists in the kingdom; writer and activist Mohammed al-Rabea; and Abdulaziz al-Meshaal, a businessman who supported an effort by activists to establish a non-governmental organization to help victims of domestic abuse.
Rights groups said the arrests appear to be politically motivated and are an attempt by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to silence dissent as women prepare to drive for the first time in the country on June 24.