Weeks before Saudi Arabia is due to lift a ban on female drivers, authorities in the kingdom have detained four of the women who campaigned for the right to get behind the wheel.
Activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef and Aisha Almane were arrested last week, along with four male supporters, according to Saudi media outlets close to authorities.
They are accused of “suspicious contact with foreign entities to support their activities, recruiting some persons in charge of sensitive government positions, and providing financial support to hostile elements outside the country,” state news agency SPA reported, quoting a state security spokesman.
The spokesman said the women wanted to “destabilize the kingdom and breach its social structure and mar the national consistency.”
The statement did not name the activists, but local media did, with one headline in the daily al-Jazirah newspaper branding them as “traitors.”
Saudi Arabia is set to lift the world’s only ban on women driving on June 24, in a move that was heralded round the world as a significant step for women’s rights in the country.
The arrests have raised alarm amongst women’s rights campaigners and those monitoring the social reform agenda of the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
“We are back to square one,” Sydney-based Saudi activist and author Manal Al-Sharif told CNN on Sunday.
“We used to live in a police state; if you speak up you go to jail. And then there would be a defamation campaign against you, saying all sort of untrue things. Character assassination. We are seeing the same pattern again now.”
Al-Sharif said security forces arrested the women in their homes without a warrant and currently have had no contact their families.
“They have been intimidated for a long time. They were asked to shut up. They movements were monitored. Their phones were monitored. Most of them were banned from travel,” she said.
Amnesty International condemned the arrests and the negative campaign against those arrested that followed in local media.
“The broader political message here is that authorities are signaling that they are the ones in charge of change,” Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East director of campaigns, told CNN.
“Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has presented himself as a ‘reformer’, but his promises of reform seem entirely superficial as the repression of human rights activists continues unabated,” Hadid said in a statement.
Human Rights Watch said the arrests fall into a wider campaign of political repression.
“Since 2014, Saudi authorities have tried nearly all peaceful dissidents in the Specialized Criminal Court, Saudi Arabia’s counter-terrorism tribunal,” the organization said in a statement.
The women along with other activists arrested have been calling for an end to Saudi Arabia’s repressive guardianship system which requires women to get the permission of a male guardian for almost everything.
Last year, the Kingdom began to eased some of the restrictions in that system especially those regarding education.
Other recent social reforms include the opening of movie theaters, music concerts and allowing women into sports stadiums for the first time.
Saudi authorities didn’t immediately respond to CNN questions about the arrests and the contradiction with the government’s policy in recent months.
This story has been updated to correct the sourcing of the activists’ arrests.