Dubai: Saudi authorities have arrested seven prominent women's rights advocates, just weeks before the kingdom's longstanding driving ban on women is set to be lifted, Human Rights Watch said on Saturday.
Without identifying those detained, Saudi Arabia's state security apparatus said seven people had been arrested for "attempting to undermine the security and stability of the kingdom... and to erode national unity".
"Work is still underway to identify everyone involved" and take legal measures against them, a security spokesman said in a statement published Saturday by state news agency SPA.
Those arrested are facing accusations including making "suspicious contact with foreign parties", providing financial support to "hostile elements abroad" and recruiting government workers.
The crackdown comes even as the kingdom breaks with long-held restrictions on women, with the driving ban slated to end June 24.
But there were warnings that Riyadh would not tolerate those pushing for change outside its authority.
Activists told HRW that in September 2017, "the royal court had called the country's prominent activists... and warned them not to speak to the media."
"The calls were made the same day the authorities announced that they would lift the driving ban on women," the watchdog said.
Reform 'frenzy of fear'
The detainees rounded up since May 15 include Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan, women who have long opposed the driving ban and who continue to oppose the kingdom's enduring guardianship laws.
Saudi Arabia's guardianship system requires women to obtain permission from their fathers, brothers, husbands or even sons for a host of life decisions.
"Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman's 'reform campaign' has been a frenzy of fear for genuine Saudi reformers who dare to advocate publicly for human rights or women's empowerment," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW.
"It appears the only 'crime' these activists committed was wanting women to drive before Mohammed bin Salman did," she said.
Activists Hathloul and Nafjan in 2016 signed a petition to abolish Saudi Arabia's male guardianship system, according to HRW.
They also participated in a campaign against the driving ban, before a royal decree announced it would be lifted.
Hathloul was previously arrested at age 25 when she drove from the neighbouring United Arab Emirates to the Saudi land border in November 2014, HRW said. She was held in juvenile detention for 73 days.
The detainees also include a semi-retired lawyer who has stepped in to represent Saudi human rights advocates in recent years, according to activists.
Saudi Arabia's 32-year-old crown prince is seen as the force behind a series of reforms including those aimed at getting women into work.
Women now no longer need male permission to start a business and scrapping the driving ban next month will give them the much-needed mobility to join the workforce.
But Saudi activists say social change will only be cosmetic without dismantling the kingdom's guardianship system.