Authorities in Saudi Arabia have arrested seven prominent women’s rights advocates since May 15, 2018, weeks before the kingdom is to lift its longstanding ban on women driving, Human Rights Watch said Saturday. 

“The Presidency of the State Security arrests 7 people for systematic action to overcome religious and national constants, to communicate suspiciously with external parties, to recruit people working in government sites, and to provide financial support to hostile elements abroad to undermine the security and stability of the Kingdom,” Saudi Interior Ministry confirmed in a message on Twitter early Saturday.

Though the reasons for the arrests were not clear, activists said the authorities were attempting to silence the women. In September 2017, the Royal Court of Saudi Arabia called the country’s prominent activists, including the ones detained and warned them not to speak to the media, they told HRW.

The calls were made the day the authorities announced the decision to end a decades-old ban on women driving cars in June this year. The authorities should release the activists immediately or charge them with a recognizable criminal offense, the rights defenders said.

saudi A Saudi woman practices driving in Riyadh ahead of the lifting of a ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia in the summer, April 29, 2018. In September 2017, a royal decree announced the end of a ban on women driving - the only one of its kind in the world - by June 2018. Photo: YOUSEF DOUBISI/AFP/Getty Images

Lifting the ban on women driving is one of the recent reforms credited to Mohammad bin Salman, the 32-year-old crown prince of the country. Following the announcement in September last year, many driving schools were opened, new regulations instituted and women traffic police personnel were hired in preparation.

His other reforms include allowing women to start their own business without permission of a man.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said, “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.”

“The message is clear that anyone expressing skepticism about the crown prince’s rights agenda faces time in jail,” she added.

Activists said the move shows the administration is not keen on encouraging activism, which is forbidden in the kingdom, and is trying not to upset of religious conservatives opposed to modernization, reported Reuters.

Eman al-Nafjan and Lujain al-Hathloul, along with two male activists are among the arrested. the others have not been identified. These activists have been for long campaigning against the ban on women driving and the discriminatory male guardianship law, which requires women to obtain permission from their fathers, brothers, husbands or even sons for a host of life decisions including traveling, marrying and obtaining passport. In September 2016, they signed a petition along with 14,000 others to ban male guardianship in the kingdom.

al-Hathloul was arrested in 2014 for attempting to cross to Saudi in a car from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. She was at a juvenile detention center for 73 days before being released in February 2015.