Three prominent Saudi women’s rights activists were released from detention on Thursday, but at least eight other campaigners remain behind bars following a sweep targeting prominent icons of the women’s rights movement last week.
The three released were named as Aisha al-Mana, Hessah al-Sheikh and Madeha al-Ajroush.
Activists have expressed concern for al-Mana, 70, as she had previously suffered a stroke.
Activists and rights group say those still detained – five women and three men – have been interrogated without access to lawyers and have been allowed just one phone call to relatives since their arrest last week.
One of the women has been held entirely incommunicado since her arrest on 15 May.
The detentions are seen as a continuation of a crackdown on perceived critics of the government.
In recent weeks, activists say dozens of women’s rights campaigners have also been banned from traveling abroad.
The arrests have cast a pall over recent social openings being pushed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, including a historic decision to lift the world’s only ban on women driving next month, as he tries to brand himself as a “reformer”.
Several of those caught up in the sweep are successful, highly-regarded professionals and pioneers in their field in Saudi Arabia.
The release of the three women signals a window of hope for those still held, who include Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Najfan – four well-known Saudi women’s rights activists who range in age from their 20s to their 60s.
Ibrahim al-Mudaimigh, one of the kingdom’s most well-known lawyers, is also among those detained.
He holds a doctorate from Harvard Law School and has supported human rights defenders for decades and has offered legal representation to activists in the kingdom.
Saudi media say the arrests were carried out by forces from the Presidency of State Security, a body that reports directly to the king and crown prince.
The interior ministry has not named those arrested but said the group is being investigated for communicating with “foreign entities“, working to recruit people in sensitive government positions and providing money to foreign circles with the aim of destabilising and harming the kingdom.
Pro-government media outlets have splashed some of the women’s photos online and in newspapers, accusing them of being traitors and of belonging to a “spy cell”.