Rights group wants Saudi female drivers released

By MAGGIE MICHAEL | May 24, 2011 | 9:43 AM EDT

Saudi women board a taxi in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, May 24, 2011. A Saudi woman was arrested for a second time for driving her car in what women's activists said Monday was a move by the rulers of the ultraconservative kingdom to suppress an Internet campaign encouraging women to defy a ban on female driving. Manal al-Sherif and a group of other women started a Facebook page called

CAIRO (AP) - Human Rights Watch urged Saudi authorities on Tuesday to release a female activist who led an online campaign against the country's driving ban and posted a video clip showing herself behind the wheel.

Saudi clerics insist the ban protects against the spread of vice and temptation, because women drivers would be free to leave home alone and interact with male strangers.

The activist, Manal al-Sherif, and other women started a Facebook page called "Teach me how to drive so I can protect myself," urging authorities to lift the ban. They posted a video clip last week of al-Sherif driving a car in the eastern city of Khobar.

She was briefly arrested on Saturday, but on Sunday she was detained again and charged with "violating the public order."

She was ordered held for five days while the case was investigated. Her brother, Mohammed al-Sherif, who was in the car while she was driving, also was taken into custody. He was released Tuesday.

Tuesday's statement by the New York-based group said Manal al-Sherif's arrest harms Saudi Arabia's image.

"Arresting a woman who drove her family around in a car and then showed it online opens Saudi Arabia to condemnation -- and, in fact, to mockery -- around the world," said HRW spokesman Christoph Wilcke. "The longer she stays in prison, the more the kingdom will have to answer for."

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women, both Saudi and foreign, from driving.

There is no written Saudi law banning women from driving, only fatwas, or religious edicts, by senior clerics that are enforced by police. The Saudi daily Al-Watan, which is owned by a member of the ruling family, claimed that al-Sherif broke down in "an episode of crying" during an interrogation and blamed the campaign on "women from outside the kingdom."

Her lawyer, Adnan al-Saleh, told The Associated Press that al-Sherif has not talked to reporters. "I am saying she didn't say a single word and we will sue them," he said.

The Facebook page was removed after more than 12,000 people indicated their support for its call for women drivers to take to the streets in a mass drive on June 17. The campaign's Twitter account also was deactivated.

Several other groups have been created on Facebook and Twitter defending al-Sherif. About 800 Saudi people signed a petition to Saudi King Abdullah, asking him to release al-Sherif and to make a clear statement on women's right to drive.