Saudi women activists back in court, but no more releases

The trials of 11 Saudi women's rights activists, most of them imprisoned, are expected to continue for two more weeks.

    Saudi rights group ALQST says verdicts for imprisoned female activists could be issued on April 17 [File: Benoit Tessier/Reuters]
    Saudi rights group ALQST says verdicts for imprisoned female activists could be issued on April 17 [File: Benoit Tessier/Reuters]

    Nearly a dozen Saudi women's rights activists, most of them imprisoned, attended their third court session on Wednesday and were told their trials will continue for at least two more weeks.

    The 11 women, some of whom allegedly faced torture and sexual abuse during nearly a year in detention, are on trial in Riyadh's criminal court on charges that include contact with foreign media, diplomats and human rights groups.

    Three of them - blogger Eman al-Nafjan, retired university lecturer Aziza al-Youssef and preacher Rokaya al-Mohareb - were seen entering the court after they were provisionally freed last Thursday.

    The others were subsequently expected to be temporarily freed, but there was no decision from the three-judge panel.

    "The third trial session for the Saudi women activists has ended with NO VERDICTS against any of them, and with no temporary release to any of them," Prisoners of Conscience, a Saudi group that tracks political prisoners, said on Twitter.

    The ALQST rights group said some verdicts could be issued on April 17, when the eight women who remain imprisoned are due back for their fourth court appearance. The court is also expected to hold more bail hearings in the coming days.

    Meanwhile, the three women who were granted temporary release last week were told their next court date would take place after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends in early June this year. The king traditionally issues pardons after Ramadan, however, they do not typically include political detainees.

    The siblings of one of the prominent detainees, activist Loujain al-Hathloul, said they were being pressured by people close to the Saudi state to remain silent over her treatment in detention.

    "Pressure from all sides to remain silent," her sister Alia al-Hathloul said on Twitter, without naming anyone.

    "We were silent and the worst kinds of torture happened while we were silent. I can shut up but only when Loujain is with us and those who tortured her are put on trial."

    At an emotionally charged hearing last week, some of the women broke down while testifying that they faced torture and sexual harassment in detention, two people with access to the trial told the AFP news agency.

    The women told the court they had been caned on their backs and thighs, electrocuted, groped and waterboarded by masked men who did not identify themselves.

    The women say the abuse took place during interrogations last year in the Red Sea city of Jeddah before they were moved to Riyadh, where they are being tried.

    At least one of the detained women tried to commit suicide following her mistreatment, a close relative said.

    Journalists working for foreign media, diplomats and other independent observers have not been allowed to attend the hearings.

    The Saudi government denies the women were tortured or harassed.

    The trial has intensified criticism of the kingdom over human rights following global outrage over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents last October at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul.

    SOURCE: News agencies