May 19 (UPI) -- Saudi authorities arrested seven women's rights activists as lifting of the driving ban approaches, Human Rights Watch said.
Two male advocates for women's rights were among the seven arrested, a Friday release from Human Rights Watch said.
"While it's not clear why they were arrested, today we have seen Saudi press reports come to suggest that these women are traitors and have been arrested because they are undermining the national unity of the country," Rothna Begum, a women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera.
Some of the activists detained said the royal court warned them in September not to speak in the media about the driving ban being lifted in June, the release said.
The driving ban will be lifted as of June 24, Al Jazeera reported. King Salman announced a decree to lift the ban that has long forbidden women from driving by June back in September.
"Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's 'reform campaign' has been a frenzy of fear for genuine Saudi reformers who dare to advocate publicly for human rights or women's empowerment," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch in the release. "The message is clear that anyone expressing skepticism about the crown prince's rights agenda faces time in jail."
The activists have been advocates against a ban on women driving and male guardianship system, which bars women from traveling abroad, marrying or obtaining a passport without a male guardian's permission. The guardian can be the woman's son, father, brother or husband.
In particular, Lujain Al-Hathloul, who was arrested, had a prior arrest in November 2014 for driving herself from Abu Dhabi to the Saudi border and attempting to cross it, which resulted in 73 days in juvenile detention before her release.
Al-Hathloul had signed a petition along with another arrested activist, Eman Al-Nafjan, to King Salman last year with more than 14,000 signatures calling on him to end male guardianship system.
Saudi authorities have a history of repressing peaceful activists, according to Human Rights Watch.
Nearly 30 prominent activists or dissidents have been arrested since 2011, the release said. Many received 10-15 year sentences "largely under broad, catch-all charges designed to criminalize peaceful dissent such as "breaking allegiance with the ruler," "sowing discord," or "inciting public opinion."