Saudi Arabia: Columnist held for supporting women's right to drive

Saudi activist Manal Al Sharif, who now lives in Dubai, flashes the sign for victory as she drives her car in the Gulf Emirate city on October 22, 2013. (AFP)

Saudi activist Manal Al Sharif, who now lives in Dubai, flashes the sign for victory as she drives her car in the Gulf Emirate city on October 22, 2013. (AFP)

Police have detained a Saudi columnist who supported ending his country's ban on women driving, activists said Wednesday.

The activists, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, said Tariq al-Mubarak was called by investigators concerning a stolen car over the weekend.

When he arrived at the Interior Ministry's Criminal Investigation Department on Sunday, he was interrogated instead about his role in a campaign launched by reformers seeking the right of women to drive in the kingdom.

When his friends were informed they could pick him up at the investigator's office, they too were detained for several hours and questioned over the campaign's activities, activists said.

Human Rights Watch and activists who know al-Mubarak say he remains in detention with no access to a lawyer.

The New York-based organisation called for al-Mubarak's immediate release and on authorities "to stop harassing and trying to intimidate activists and women who defied the driving ban."

The spokesperson for the Interior Ministry, Mansour al-Turki, could not be reached for comment.

In a column published in the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat the day of his arrest, al-Mubarak said extremists are intimidating people from exercising their rights.

He said the courts in Saudi Arabia do not have sufficient provisions to deter those who threaten and terrorise others from exercising their freedoms because "rights and freedoms  ... are not instilled in our culture, nor our interpretation of religion."

Al-Mubarak, who also works as a schoolteacher, was among a core group of active young Saudis calling for women's right to drive.

Around 60 women claimed they got behind the wheel Saturday to oppose the ban.

The campaign sparked protest by the kingdom's ultraconservative religious establishment.

The reformers behind the October 26 driving campaign say their efforts are ongoing and that they continue to receive videos by women filming themselves flouting the driving ban.

The activists said that they have been followed for the past several days and are anticipating arrest.

They have put in place contingency plans and emergency numbers for journalists and rights organisations to call in case they are detained.

At least two women have been fined recently by police for driving, the activists said.

Samia El-Moslimany said she was given a nearly $135 fine for driving in the kingdom, though she has a US driver's license. Sapa-AP

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