Saudi Arabia Releases Activists Arrested for Driving, Social Media Activity

Al-Akhbar is currently going through a transitional phase whereby the English website is available for Archival purposes only. All new content will be published in Arabic on the main website (www.al-akhbar.com).

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Published Friday, February 13, 2015

Two Saudi women's rights activists, one of whom tried to defy a ban on female driving, have been freed after more than two months in jail, a campaigner said on Friday.

"Yes, Loujain is free," the campaigner said, after speaking with Loujain Hathloul when she left prison.

Hathloul "just said that she's released and she's happy," said the activist, who did not give a name.

According to the activist, the family of Maysaa al-Amoudi confirmed that their kin, who was detained at the same time as Hathloul, was also let out of jail.

"Peace be upon you, good people," Hathloul tweeted late on Thursday.

She and al-Amoudi had been held since December 1, after Hathloul tried to drive into the kingdom from neighboring United Arab Emirates in defiance of the ban.

US-ally Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world which does not allow women to drive.

Activists say women's driving is not actually against the law in the oil-rich kingdom, and the ban is linked to tradition and custom in the ultra-conservative Wahhabi nation, and not backed by Islamic texts or judicial rulings.

Some leading members of the kingdom’s powerful Wahhabi clergy have argued against women being allowed to drive, which they say could lead to them mingling with unrelated men, thereby breaching strict gender segregation rules. However, many Saudi women have to hire male drivers to transport them from one place to another.

Last November Saudi Arabia's top cleric, Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh, said the female driving prohibition protects society from "evil" and should not be a major concern.

Al-Amoudi, a UAE-based Saudi journalist, arrived at the border to support Hathloul and was also arrested.

In December, activists said a court in Eastern Province had transferred the two women to a special tribunal for "terrorism" cases. At the time, campaigners did not provide full details of the allegations against the pair but said investigations appeared to focus on the women's social media activities rather than the driving.

The activist who spoke to AFP on Friday did not know whether the two women were facing charges or what conditions were placed on their release.

In February 2014, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said that Gulf monarchies, fearful of unrest, have stepped up efforts to monitor and control media, particularly online.

In late January, a Twitter account called “Monaseeron” posted classified documents, reportedly from the Saudi interior and defense ministries, that revealed much about the the government’s efforts to spy on its citizens and monitor their accounts, as well as details on arrest warrants and detention of individuals who called for political reform.

Hathloul has 232,000 followers on Twitter. Before her arrest she tweeted, sometimes with humor, details of the 24 hours she spent waiting to cross into Saudi Arabia after border officers stopped her.

Al-Amoudi has 136,000 followers and has also hosted a program on YouTube discussing the driving ban.

Some 41 percent of internet users in the Gulf monarchy use Twitter, a study published by the US-based Business Insider website found.

The microblogging site has stirred broad debate on subjects ranging from religion to politics in a country where such public discussion had been considered at best unseemly and sometimes illegal.

Scores of Saudis have been arrested over the years for posting content critical of the Wahhabi regime on Twitter and other social media outlets.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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