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Saudi authorities release three women's rights activists

The three elderly activists have a long history of campaigning for greater liberties for women dating back to the 1990s.

women's rights activists

Authorities in Saudi Arabia have released three prominent women's rights activists, Amnesty International said on Thursday.

The three are part of a group of 11 women's rights campaigners who have rallied for more liberties, including the abolition of the male guardianship system that, among other things, prevents women from travelling without the permission of a male relative.

Aisha al-Mana, Hessa al-Sheikh, and Madeha al-Ajroush were released less than a week after their initial detention, in what many critics view as a crackdown on dissent.

"We can confirm the release of Aisha al-Mana, Hessa al-Sheikh, and Madeha al-Ajroush, but we don't know the conditions behind it," said Samah Hadid, Middle East director of campaigns at Amnesty.

"We call on Saudi authorities to release all other human rights defenders unconditionally and immediately."

There was no immediate comment from Saudi officials and the fate of other detained activists remains unclear.

'Agents of embassies'

Mana, who is 70-years old and is believed to be in frail health, has waged a campaign since the 1990s to demand women's right to drive.

Riyadh announced the arrests last week and accused the activists of "suspicious contact with foreign parties", as well as providing financial support to hostile nations and attempting to undermine the kingdom's "security and stability".

Those detained were also branded traitors and "agents of embassies" by state-affiliated media.

The activists, who represent several generations of Saudi feminists including two men, could face up to 20 years in jail if found guilty.

Among those detained is Loujain al-Hathloul, 28, a Saudi activist imprisoned for 72 days in 2014 for attempting to cross the border into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates in her car.

Driving ban lifted

The Gulf Center for Human Rights expressed concern for Hathloul, who has been held incommunicado since her arrest. Campaigners also said detainees had no access to their lawyers and their whereabouts remain unknown.

The arrests came just weeks before Saudi Arabia is expected to lift a ban on women driving and has cast doubt over Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman's commitment to effecting change as part of his much-touted Vision 2030 plan.

Rothna Begum, a women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said earlier this week the arrests seem to be related to the lifting of the women's driving ban on June 24.

"Again, these arrests are happening largely as a way to silence the critics of Mohammed bins Salman's reform campaign, in particular because these women's rights activists are demanding more than just the lifting of the driving ban."

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