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Behind the veil of reform: Saudis in exile speak out about rights violations

FILE - In this Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, file photo, a Saudi woman waits outside a polling center as she prepares to cast her ballot during the country's municipal elections in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed, File

Saudi women may finally be getting behind the wheel, but sweeping reforms implemented by the young and powerful Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman could be a distraction from the countries rampant human rights violations, an activist told i24NEWS.

"What's happening now it's not good. When they allowed Saudi women to drive they imprisoned all the activists in Saudi Arabia," Saudi human rights activist and writer Samah Damanhoori told i24NEWS.

Salman has implemented a series of reforms, including lifting the decades old ban on women driving, as well as restructuring the Saudi economy and restricting the powers of religious police.

Sharia Islamic law is the national law in Saudi Arabia and women still need to be accompanied by a male guardian and require permission to travel, access healthcare, marry and be discharged from prison.

Though celebrated worldwide as a step towards progress, Salman's reforms were followed by a wave of arrests. Saudis in exile assert the importance of speaking out and using social media to tell their stories.

"There are a lot of women like us," Damanhoori tells i24NEWS. "Whenever anything happens we just record everything and we post it on Twitter, and they trust us that we're going to keep that content on Twitter -- we're going to talk about it in public -- they know that they're going to be in danger because they are in Saudi Arabia."

BANDAR AL-JALOUD (Saudi Royal Palace/AFP/File)

Damanhoori says activists "know they might be killed they might be imprisoned. They might be tortured but they need to make sure that it's not only one person job. It has to be all of us united together – the simplest thing that we can do is just go out and speak because we are really lucky to live here."

Damanhoori was abroad finishing her master's degree when her father decided he wanted her to return to Saudi Arabia to settle down and start a family.

"I told him 'let me finish my masters and then I will go back home and do whatever you want' and he didn't like the idea so he canceled the scholarship. I was asking for help from my mom and she blocked me everywhere she said 'don't get me involved in this'."

With no support from her parents, one of her uncles agreed to act as her guardian and approve her overseas studies on the condition that she sleep with him.

"Literally everyone from back home just got united and abandoned me," Damanhoori says.

Women are not the only targets of human rights abuses. Activists who spoke to i24NEWS on condition that their identities not be revealed for their own protection say that anyone who voices dissent is in danger.

"I was a blogger, I had a blog, I became an atheist and I talked publicly about it with my real name my real picture as a teenager," *Mahmoud said. "I ended up going to prison a few times."

Fayez Nureldine (AFP)

"It's hard for women but anyone that faces the regime or anyone that stands up for any kind of ideas that doesn't go with the country then you are basically dead, I'm sentenced to be beheaded, and they tried to get the US to hand me over to them three years ago and I had to fight that and I just won," the activist told i24NEWS.

Activists in exile also fear for their families back home, and when they try to help those still in Saudi Arabia their families pay a heavy price.

"I've helped a few girls escape Saudi Arabia which is the most stressful thing you can do and the last time I helped girls they decided to arrest my brother in Saudi Arabia and beat the sh*** out of him," said Mahmoud.

"You have this progress but you still have all these blocks that are still effective within the country but it doesn't show up in the national news and it doesn’t show up anywhere and no one knows about these kinds of things. They are trying to paint a good picture to the international community," he says.

While many hope to return to Saudi Arabia, they know that, at the present time, it would be too dangerous.

"I can’t go back," Mahmoud says. "I'd been shot at, stabbed, tortured, all kinds of stuff prior to coming here so I will be dead if I get back and I even told my wife if it gets to that I'll probably kill myself before I go back. I'm not losing my head."

FAYEZ NURELDINE (AFP)

Reforms may be implemented from the top down, but conceptions of women and their place in society may be too deeply embedded within the society to affect change within the average family, another activist says.

"For the royal family it may look as though it's a gateway to freedom for women but really families are still really traditional, so no matter what happens, I mean my friends are still not driving, they still have to get around with a male driver or an escort. Which we always had to do," said *Samara, a Saudi woman who is now living in exile.

"It's the mentality. No matter what happens the mentality has to change," she says.

Mansour Abu Maryam, a journalist and author who writes about Saudi human rights violations, said the United States should be more vocal about the state of human rights in Saudi Arabia.

"In the West I really think they should hold him [Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman] accountable and at least don’t promote him as a reformer when he is not," Maryam told i24NEWS.

"Saudi Arabia has sponsored and paid a lot of PR organizations and writers and contributors and promoting Saudi Arabia and endorsing it and commending the effort he is doing but I personally believe in the West we should push for more human rights in Saudi Arabia," he says.

Canada's recent criticism of Saudi Arabia's efforts to muzzle critics resulted in Riyadh withdrawing its ambassador from the country and cancelling academic and other forms of cooperation with the country.

Human Rights Watch says at least one female activist in Saudi Arabia is facing the death penalty for her advocacy in the kingdom’s Shia-majority east.

*Names have been changed

Emily Rose is i24NEWS' junior Middle East correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

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