Online activists face arrest over Saudi driving ban defiance

The internet has been a key tool in reaching out to international media and organising the demo. Picture: Jon Savage
The internet has been a key tool in reaching out to international media and organising the demo. Picture: Jon Savage
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WOMEN planning to challenge male-only driving rules in Saudi Arabia have been warned they could face arrest even if they only join online protests.

The warning came on the eve of a planned demonstration by Saudi women activists who obtained driving licences abroad.

The internet has been a key tool in reaching out to international media and organising the demo, similar to one staged last year by a small group of women.

Though no specific Saudi law bans women from driving, the rules are enforced by ultra-conservative Saudi clerics who hold far-reaching influence over the ruling monarchy and give it political legitimacy.

Mention of the strict Saudi laws against online political dissent significantly broadens the possible fallout from the expected campaign by Saudi women, who have pledged to get behind the wheel today in defiance of Saudi traditions enforced by the nation’s powerful Islamic religious establishment.

Friday’s edition of the pan-­Arab newspaper Al-Hayat quoted Saudi interior ministry spokesman Turki al-Faisal as saying cyber-laws could apply to anyone supporting the female drivers’ campaign.

Conviction can bring up to five years in prison and stiff fines, the article quoted a Saudi consultant on cyber laws, Marwan al-Ruwqi, as saying.

Saudi has adopted some reforms in recent years, including allowing women to sit on the national advisory council and a decision by King Abdullah to permit women to vote and run in municipal elections in 2015.

But the driving ban appears to retain the backing of senior clerics, who also refuse to amend codes such as requiring women to obtain a male guardian’s approval to travel.

Mr Faisal, the ministry spokesman, was quoted as saying the cyber-dissident law “will be applied against violators” while other measures will be taken against “those who gather to support” the planned protest.

On Wednesday, he warned of police crackdowns against “disturbing public order”. The statement was issued after about 150 clerics and religious scholars protested outside a royal palace, saying Saudi authorities were doing nothing to stop women flouting the ban.

Some of the leaders of the campaign said they received phone calls from authorities emphasising the warnings.

The UK-based rights group Amnesty International said the main website of the women’s driving campaign, ­oct26driving.org, was blocked early on Friday and replaced with the message: “Drop the leadership of Saudi women.”

The women activists still plan to defy the driving ban, despite their campaign website being hacked and repeated threats from the authorities intended to thwart their plans, Amnesty said.

“Saudi Arabian authorities use the excuse that society at large is behind the ban and claim the law does not discriminate against women. But at the same time they continue to harass and intimidate women activists,” said Said Boumedouha, acting director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.