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UN Calls on Saudi Arabia to Release Human Rights Activists

FILE - A woman drives a car on a highway in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving, March 29, 2014. Women's rights activists are among those being detained in Saudi Arabia.

The U.N. is calling for the immediate release of human rights activists arrested in Saudi Arabia.

The crackdown against human rights defenders and activists, including women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia, began in mid-May and shows no signs of letting up. The U.N. human rights office says at least 15 government critics have been arbitrarily detained.

Agency spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani says eight have been temporarily released pending a review of their cases.

"In some cases, their whereabouts are unknown and there is a serious lack of transparency in the processing of their cases," Shamdasani said. "While the authorities have made statements about possible serious charges against these people that could lead to prison terms of up to 20 years, it is unclear whether charges have been laid in any of these cases."

Among those reportedly detained is Hatoon al-Fassi, who actively fought for greater women's rights and the recent lifting of the country's ban on women driving. Shamdasani tells VOA that while genuine reforms appear to be taking place in Saudi Arabia, those reforms are not being extended to the civil and political rights sphere.

"Dissent, criticism of the government is still not accepted in the country. That can explain why many of these human rights defenders and activists have been jailed. All of them have criticized government policies in one way or another," she said.

Government officials have refused to comment on the arrests.

The U.N. Human Rights office is calling for the unconditional release of all human rights defenders and activists, saying they should be able to carry out their crucial human rights work without fear of reprisals.