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Prominent Saudi women's rights activist detained as driving ban lifted: sources

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has detained prominent women’s rights advocate Hatoon al-Fassi, widening a crackdown that has ensnared more than a dozen activists even as the kingdom lifted a ban on women driving, sources said on Wednesday.

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London-based Saudi rights group ALQST and exiled activist Manal al-Sharif reported the arrest on Twitter, but provided few details. It was confirmed by sources in touch with people close to Fassi, who said they were scared of speaking out.

An Interior Ministry spokesman and the government’s communications office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Fassi was last active online on Thursday. She was planning to take journalists in her car on Sunday as other women did to celebrate the much-hyped end of the world’s last ban on female drivers, long seen as an emblem of women’s repression in the deeply conservative Muslim country.

The ban’s end, ordered last September by King Salman, is part of sweeping reforms pushed by his powerful son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in a bid to transform the economy of the world’s top oil exporter and open up its cloistered society.

But it has been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent against some of the very activists who previously campaigned against the ban, including Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, and Aziza al-Yousef as well as the men Ibrahim al-Modaimeegh, Mohammad al-Rabea and Abdulaziz al-Meshaal.

Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor said earlier this month that a total of 17 people had been arrested, eight of whom were later released. The authorities accused them of suspicious contacts with “foreign entities” and said more suspects were being sought. Local media labeled them traitors.

At least nine people remain in detention “after sufficient evidence was made available and for their confessions of charges attributed to them”.

Fassi is an associate professor at King Saud University and a regular contributor to Saudi Arabia’s al-Riyadh newspaper. She has long been a champion for women’s rights, including the right to drive. Her husband is a prominent Gulf Cooperation Council official.

Fassi tweeted on June 6 that she had received her Saudi driving license along with a small group of women who converted their permits obtained in foreign countries.

“It is as if I have been recognized as an equal citizen,” she told English-language newspaper Arab News last week. “Celebrating will be the first aim, then I will see where I need to go on that day.”

Additional Reporting by Stephen Kalin, Editing by Stephen Kalin and William Maclean