This week, 10 women in Saudi Arabia were issued driver’s licenses; they were the first women in decades to be given paperwork allowing them to legally drive in the kingdom. The women already had valid licenses from other countries, which allowed them to qualify for Saudi licenses ahead of June 24, when a countrywide ban on women driving will be reversed.

What should be a landmark moment for the kingdom has been overshadowed by recent arrests of women who had campaigned for the right to drive there.

In recent weeks, a number of people have been arrested on charges of trying to undermine Saudi Arabia’s security. Women who advocated for women’s rights including Loujain Hathloul, Aziza Alyousef and Eman al-Nafjan were among those arrested, according to Amnesty International. The crackdown seems to contradict Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s public relations campaign highlighting his efforts to modernize Saudi Arabia.

Esraa Albuti, an executive director at Ernst and Young, shows her new driver's license June 4 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (CIC/EPA-EFE)
Esraa Albuti, an executive director at Ernst and Young, shows her new driver's license June 4 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (CIC/EPA-EFE)

Hathloul served time in 2014 for driving from the United Arab Emirates and trying to cross into Saudi Arabia. Three women who participated in a 1990 protest of the driving ban were arrested but have since been released.

Last month, U.N. human rights spokeswoman Liz Throssell said activists were facing charges that “could lead to draconian sentences.”

“If, as it appears, their detention is related solely to their work as human rights defenders and activists on women’s issues, they should be released immediately,” Throssell said.

Some of those held in detention have been released, but at least four women and five men remain in prison, according to the Associated Press.

Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East director of campaigns, said that “the Saudi Arabian authorities’ endless harassment of women’s rights activists is entirely unjustifiable.”

“European and world leaders must not stay silent in the face of gross and systematic violations of the human rights of activists and human rights defenders,” she said.

Saudi Arabia is the only country that prohibits women from driving.

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