The United Nations called on Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to provide information about women's rights activists arrested ahead of the lifting of a ban on women driving that is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's reform programme.
In this file photo from March 29, 2014, a woman drives a auto in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as part of a campaign to defy the country's ban on women driving.
Saudi Shura Council approved a new draft legislation outlawing harassment with sentences reaching up to two years in prison and fines up to $26,600 or one of the two sentences if convicted. Even if a victim waives the right to prosecute a harasser, the kingdom's legal authorities can still press charges.
The measure has been passed by the Cabinet and an advisory council, and will become law with a royal decree.
The decision to lift a decades-old ban on women driving cars was hailed as proof of a new progressive trend in Saudi Arabia.
She had proposed a number of additional articles on the law on the protection of witnesses and of the identity of those who report harassment, the provision of social and psychological support to the victims of harassment, and raising awareness of the provisions of the law. Under the leadership of King Salman, the kingdom has pushed forward an agenda that aims to remove numerous traditional restrictions on women's participation in society.
"Given the significant loosening of certain restrictions on women's activities in Saudi Arabia... it is perplexing why both women and men engaged in campaigning for such positive developments are now being targeted by the authorities", the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement.
Human Rights Watch voiced concern on Wednesday over the "vague charges" the activists are facing, adding that numerous country's activists have disappeared from the activism sphere following the arrests.
Suad Abu-Dayyeh, a Middle East expert with the global advocacy group Equality Now, said the draft law was a "welcome step", but expressed concern over the recent crackdown on women's rights campaigners. "We call on the authorities to release all human rights activists immediately".