Faced with legal threats, Saudi women activists drop plan for "drive-in" protest

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Saudi activist Manal Al Sharif, who now lives in Dubai, drives her car in the Gulf Emirate city on October 22, 2013, as she campaigns in solidarity with Saudi women preparing to take to the wheel on October 26, defying the Saudi authorities, fight for women's right to drive in Saudi Arabia. (Photo: AFP - Marwan Naamani)

Published Friday, October 25, 2013

Activists pressing for an end to Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving have dropped plans to hold a "drive-in" Saturday after threats of legal action against anyone getting behind the wheel.

Instead, rather than making the date of October 26 a symbolic one, they have called for an open-ended campaign.

"Out of caution and respect for the interior ministry's warnings... we are asking women not to drive tomorrow and to change the initiative from an October 26 campaign to an open driving campaign," activist Najla al-Hariri told AFP Friday.

Several women said they had received telephone calls from the ministry, which openly warned on Thursday of measures against activists who chose to participate, asking them to promise not to drive on Saturday.

Ministry spokesman General Mansur al-Turki told AFP: "It is known that women in Saudi are banned from driving and laws will be applied against violators and those who demonstrate in support" of this cause.

On Wednesday, the ministry said it would crack down against anyone who attempts to "disturb public peace" by congregating or marching "under the pretext of an alleged day of female driving."

In remarks to the al-Hayat daily published Friday, Turki even warned against supporting the campaign online.

When asked what would happen to those who did, Turki said legal measures will be taken "against whoever violates the anti-cyber crimes law," an offense punishable by up to five years in prison in the kingdom.

Activists have repeatedly insisted throughout their campaign that no demonstrations would be held in the ultra-conservative absolute monarchy, which that officially bans public gatherings.

A campaign website, where an online petition amassed more than 16,000 signatures before authorities blocked it two weeks later, was hacked on Friday.

"Drop the leadership of Saudi women," read a cryptic message in English posted on the website, http://www.oct26driving.com.

Referring to Saturday, blogger Eman Nafjan said "the date was only symbolic, and women have begun driving before and will continue to drive after October 26."

Over the past two weeks, videos posted online have shown women already driving in Saudi Arabia.

Women who have defied the law in the past have run into trouble with the authorities and been harassed by compatriots.

In 1990, authorities stopped 47 women who got behind the wheel in a demonstration against the driving ban

In 2011, activist Manal al-Sharif, one of the organizers of this Saturday's campaign, was arrested and held nine days for posting online a video of herself behind the wheel.

That year Saudi police arrested a number of women who defied the driving ban and forced them to sign a pledge not to drive again.

The UN Human Rights Council urged Saudi Arabia to crack down on discrimination against women among other rights abuses on Friday. The council adopted a report listing 225 recommendations for improvements earlier this week in Geneva during a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the oil-rich kingdom's rights record.

Many of the UN recommendations called on Riyadh to abolish a system requiring women to seek permission from male relatives to work, marry or leave the country, and one urged it to lift the driving ban.

(AFP)

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