Saudi women’s right to drive activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, is standing trial on Wednesday after spending nearly 10 months in prison on charges of supporting “hostile elements”.
Sources told Al Jazeera that al-Hathloul, who has also protested against the kingdom’s male guardianship system, was scheduled to appear before Riyadh’s Specialised Criminal Court at 8am local time (5:00 GMT), along with female activists Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan.
In a statement on Tuesday, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) said it was “deeply concerned” about the “well-being” of the activists and feared they may not get a fair trial.
“The GCHR is deeply concerned about the well-being of the human rights defenders who have been detained for over 300 days and are further concerned about the prospects of them receiving a fair trial,” said the statement.
“Prosecutions in Saudi Arabia have long been characterised by breaches of fair trial standards, in particular, the use of torture.”
According to rights groups, al-Hathloul, one of the leaders of the right to drive campaign, was arrested in the United Arab Emirates where she lived until March last year, when she was extradited to Saudi Arabia under “murky circumstances”.
She was released after a few days, but re-arrested in May as part of a sweep that targeted at least 10 female activists.
The official Saudi Press Agency said the women were accused of “suspicious contact with foreign entities to support their activities, recruiting some persons in charge of sensitive government positions, and providing financial support to hostile elements outside the country”.
Immediately after her arrest, flyers began circulating on social media in Saudi Arabia showing the activists, including al-Hathloul, with a traitor stamp over their faces.
Several people with knowledge of al-Hathloul and the other women’s arrest told news agency The Associated Press that some of them had been subjected to caning, electrocution, as well as sexual harassment.
In an opinion piece for American broadcaster CNN in January, al-Hathloul’s brother Walid wrote that his sister described being taken to “a palace of terror that is 10 minutes away from the prison”.
According to Walid, al-Hathloul was “blindfolded and thrown into the trunk of a car on the way to this secret place”. “The torture sessions, she said, normally occur in the basement of this palace,” he wrote.
During a visit to the United States last month, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said the authorities were looking into allegations of mistreatment, although he defended the women’s incarceration.
“There were funds received from foreign governments that were hostile,” al-Jubeir told reporters.
“There were … attempts to recruit individuals in sensitive positions and to take sensitive information and pass it on to hostile entities outside Saudi Arabia. So, there’s more to it than meets the eye.”
Among those arrested are prominent Islamic preachers Salman al-Awdah, Awad al-Qarni, Farhan al-Malki, Mostafa Hassan and Safar al-Hawali.
Al-Awdah and al-Qarni, who have millions of followers on social media, were arrested last September and accused of having links to the Muslim Brotherhood, a group Saudi Arabia has blacklisted as a “terror organisation”.
Al-Hawali was detained after he published a 3,000-page book attacking MBS and the ruling family over their ties to Israel, which the 68-year-old author called a “betrayal”.