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Brushing back pressure from Washington, Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia escalated his crackdown on even the mildest forms of dissent with the arrests this week of at least nine intellectuals, journalists, activists and their family members, rights groups and a Saudi associate of the detainees said Friday.

Among those held are two dual Saudi-American citizens and two women -- one of them pregnant, according to the groups. Many of the detainees are suspected of having complained to Western journalists and rights groups about the treatment of the imprisoned women's-rights activists, according to a Saudi citizen briefed on the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss confidential information.

The arrests come as Salman, the 33-year-old ruler of the kingdom, is under intense scrutiny from the West over the killing last fall of the dissident Jamal Khashoggi, a Virginia resident and Washington Post columnist who was ambushed and dismembered by Saudi agents in Istanbul. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Salman ordered the killing.

In the aftermath, a chorus of American lawmakers from both parties have publicly urged the crown prince to loosen his grip by releasing some of the nonviolent activists. Many lawmakers have focused attention on a small group jailed for campaigning for changes to the kingdom's austere social code -- including the right for women to drive, which Salman has granted.

Others have demanded the release of a dual Saudi-American citizen, Walid Fitaihi, a Harvard-trained doctor, who has been held without charges or trial for a year and a half.

Associates and relatives of the activists and Fitaihi have said that the detainees have been tortured in prison.

The most recent arrests -- the first high-profile detentions that Salman has ordered since Khashoggi's killing -- suggest that the crown prince intends to continue his crackdown regardless of the American admonitions to change.

Almost all those arrested in recent days are connected to a group of women's-rights activists who have been detained since last spring. They have been charged with acting as foreign agents and working to undermine the kingdom's security, though rights groups say their detentions appear to stem from their activism.

Three of the women were granted temporary release last week, leading some observers to speculate that the international pressure on Saudi Arabia to improve its rights record was working. But the charges against them have not been dropped. There were also indications that several more detainees were to be released. But a week later, they remain in detention.

Those arrested this week had far lower profiles than the women's-rights activists and tended to be less outspoken, though they belonged to the same social and intellectual circles.

One of the dual American citizens detained, Salah al-Haider, is the son of a prominent activist temporarily freed last week, Aziza al-Yousef. He had publicly celebrated his mother's return by posting photos of her on Twitter. The other is Bader el-Ibrahim, a Shiite author and physician who may have attracted the authorities' attention because he has written about Shiites in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom's population is mostly Sunni, and Shiites are often subject to discrimination.

Their names were confirmed by ALQST, a rights group based in London that has worked on behalf of the activists, and by a Saudi associate of the detainees who insisted on anonymity out of safety fears.

Most of the newly arrested are supporters or associates of the jailed women, said Yahya Assiri, the director of ALQST.

He said he did not know what to make of the latest roundup, coming so soon after authorities had allowed three of the women to go home.

"It's just bizarre," he said Friday. "They released Aziza, and they arrested her son. I couldn't understand that."

Neither the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, nor a spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington responded to requests for comment Friday.

Also among the group of recent detainees, according to Prisoners of Conscience, another rights group, was Yazed al-Faife, a journalist for a state-owned newspaper, Al Sharq. He had recently appeared in a video accusing Saudi officials of habitually neglecting parts of southern Saudi Arabia and suggesting that some officials' dealings there had been corrupt.

A Section on 04/06/2019

Print Headline: Saudi crackdown adds new targets

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