As Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman touts moderate Islam and makes a public display of giving women more rights, human rights activists say the country is quietly arresting women’s rights activists.
Human rights activist Noha al-Balawi, who is based in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia, has been held in detention for 17 days and could be imprisoned for up to five years for advocating for women’s rights on social media, activists say.
“She is very vocal on Twitter and Snapchat, she advocates for women’s rights and women who drive. She asked to represent the people and the country in Parliament,” Yahya Assiri, director of the London-based human rights group Alqst, told Newsweek. “They don’t want activists to get involved. Women haven’t had any rights until now, and they are still arresting people.”
The activist was arrested on January 23, and has been held by police in Tabuk ever since, rights groups say. Police allegedly questioned her about her Twitter account and about videos she posted online.
Police said Balawi could be tried under Article 6 of Saudi Arabia’s anti-cybercrime law, which aims to punish anyone who creates or transmits information deemed “prejudicial to public order.” If she is found guilty, she could face up to five years in prison or be hit with an $800,000 fine. She is expected to appear in court on Monday, activists said.
Saudi Arabia has made a big show of giving women more rights in recent months. The government has started to allow some men and women to mix in the workplace. In September, the government announced that women would be allowed to drive for the first time starting in June 2018. The country even held its first public concert by a female performer in December, and women were permitted to attend sporting events for the first time this year.
The changes are part of bin Salman’s attempts to modernize and reform Saudi Arabia.
Salman, who was made crown prince last year by his father, King Salman, has set out to attract foreign investment and modernize the country’s economy by promoting a more moderate form of Islam. The shift from the ultraconservative form of Sunni Islam practiced in the kingdom was part of a necessary move away from dependence on oil revenue as the Saudi government struggles to shrink its large budget deficit. But rights groups say the decision to give women more freedoms is little more than a publicity stunt, and that even more women are being jailed than before the crown prince rose to power.
“This is the worst time for women activists, especially for women who just talk and say things. I’ve seen dozens of cases like this in the past year. Especially in the past year there has been an increasing number of arrests,” Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Gulf Institute, told Newsweek.
“Before women would be jailed for a few days and let go with a strong warning, but now women are being sentenced to years in prison and are even tortured in prison,” Ahmed added.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Twitter account for Balawi has been deleted since her arrest.