Rights group: Saudi Arabia detains writers, intellectuals

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Saudi Arabia has detained at least eight people, mostly intellectuals and writers, London-based Saudi rights group ALQST has said, amid a two-year crackdown on free expression in the kingdom.

They were taken from their homes in the capital Riyadh and the Red Sea port city of Jeddah last week by plain-clothes police but the reason was unclear, the group said.

The group said the following activists, including journalists, writers and entrepreneurs, were arrested: Bader Al-Rashed, Sulaiman Al-Saikhan Al-Nasser, Waad Al-Mohaya, Musab Fouad Al-Abdulkarim, Abdul Majid al-Balawi,  Abdulaziz Alehis, Abdulrahman Monthly and Fouad Al- Farhan.

The Saudi government offered no immediate comment.

Riyadh denies having political prisoners, but senior officials have said monitoring activists, and potentially detaining them, is needed to maintain social stability.

Those detained are not frontline activists, sources told the Reuters news agency. Some are intellectuals who have published articles or appeared on television while others are entrepreneurs.

International criticism

As Riyadh takes over the presidency of the Group of 20 countries, it is struggling to overcome intense international criticism over its human rights record, including last year’s killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a team of Saudi agents, the arrest of women’s rights activists and the devastating Yemen war.

Even as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman touted economic and social openness in the traditionally closed-off country, the authorities rounded up critics, an effort that gathered pace in September 2017 with the arrests of prominent religious leaders, some of whom could now face the death penalty.

Saudi backpedals on video labelling feminism ‘extremist’

An anti-corruption campaign two months later netted top businessmen and senior officials. It was criticised as a power play and shakedown of the crown prince’s potential political rivals.

In mid-2018, more than a dozen women’s rights activists were arrested just as Riyadh lifted a ban on women driving cars. Local media tarred them as traitors, and a court has charged some of them with crimes including contacts with foreign journalists.

This April, eight people, including two United States citizens, who had supported the detained women, were also arrested.

Public protests, political parties and labour unions are banned in Saudi Arabia, where the media are controlled and criticism of the royal family can lead to prison.

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