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Saudi Activists Targeted as Driving Ban Nears End

FILE - Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif flashes the sign for victory as she drives her car in Dubai, Oct. 22, 2013.

The Saudi Arabian activist who helped start a women's right-to-drive campaign in the kingdom said she is receiving death threats now that the driving ban is about to be lifted.

Manal al-Sharif was jailed in 2011 after she uploaded a video of herself driving in Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world that banned women from driving.

Al-Sharif, who now lives in Australia, told the local media Monday she had planned to return to her home country and drive across the kingdom after the ban is lifted June 24. However, she has decided to stay in Sydney after seven other prominent human rights activists were detained in Saudi Arabia over the weekend.

"If you ask me why they've been arrested, it's just to send a message for women's rights activists who've been campaigning to drive, to just shut up," she told Reuters.

Al-Sharif said dozens of activists, including herself, received phone calls warning them not to comment on the decree lifting the ban. Those arrested had continued to speak out.

They have been accused of being "traitors" and working with foreign powers, charges that Amnesty International called "blatant intimidation tactics." The activists were accused of "contact with foreign entities with the aim of undermining the country's stability and social fabric," the human rights group said.

The decision to end the ban on female drivers has been hailed as proof of a new progressive trend under reform-minded Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 32. But the decision has been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent.

Al-Sharif said the arrests came as a shock. "What's happening here? We're all happy and all supportive when the [driving] ban was lifted. I thought, 'Finally, I can dream of a new society.' But right now, I see my dream being shattered," she said.

"It's so disappointing. I was so hopeful, but the way that these women are being treated is not promising. It's alarming."