Ten Saudi Arabian women stood trial on Wednesday for the first time since they were detained last year in a case that has intensified global scrutiny of the kingdom’s human rights record following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Hatoon Al-Fassi were among the women appearing before the Criminal Court in the capital, Riyadh, where charges were presented against them, court president Ibrahim al-Sayari said.
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He was speaking to reporters and diplomats, who were barred from attending the session.
The women are among about a dozen prominent activists who were arrested last May in the weeks before a ban on women driving cars in the conservative kingdom was lifted.
At the time of the arrests, the public prosecutor said five men and four women were being held on suspicion of harming the country’s interests and offering support to hostile elements abroad. State-backed media labelled them as traitors and “agents of embassies”, unnerving foreign diplomats in the key US ally.
Al-Hathloul’s brother tweeted late on Tuesday that the family had been informed that the trial had been moved to the criminal court from the Specialised Criminal Court, which was set up to try “terrorism” cases but is often used for political offences. It was not clear what was behind the decision.
The kingdom’s public prosecution has still not specified the charges. According to Amnesty International, al-Hathloul had no access to legal representation.
“We fear she will be charged and tried on terrorism-related charges for peaceful human rights work,” Amnesty tweeted.
بعد ١٠ شهور في السجن وقبل نص ساعة من المحاكمة ربما تعرف لجين ماهي التهم الموجهة اليها لكن حتى الان لا احد يعلم ماهي هذه التهم بشكل رسمي.
— Walid Alhathloul | وليد الهذلول (@WalidAlhathloul) March 13, 2019
Translation: After 10 months of imprisonment, and half an hour before the trial starts, Loujain may finally know what the charges against her are but, so far, nobody knows what the formal charges are.
‘Subjected to torture’
Last week, three dozen countries, including all 28 European Union members, called on Riyadh to release the activists, in a rare censure of the wealthy oil-rich kingdom at the UN Human Rights Council.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his British counterpart have said they raised the issue with Saudi authorities during recent visits.
Activists say some of the detainees, including al-Hathloul, were held in solitary confinement and subjected to mistreatment and torture, including electric shocks, flogging and sexual assault. Saudi officials have denied those allegations.
Other detainees include Nouf Abdelaziz, Mayaa al-Zahrani, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Saada, Shadan al-Onezi, Amal al-Harbi and Mohammed al-Rabia, according to rights groups.
Al-Hathloul, who had advocated an end to the driving ban and the kingdom’s male guardianship system, was previously detained twice, including for 73 days in 2014 after she attempted to drive into Saudi Arabia from the neighbouring United Arab Emirates.
The University of British Columbia graduate was ranked third by Arabian Business magazine in the list of top most powerful Arab women in 2015 in recognition of her fearless activism.
Al-Nafjan and al-Yousef participated in a protest against the driving ban in 2013. Al-Yousef also authored a petition, which al-Nafjan and al-Hathloul signed, in 2016 seeking to end male guardianship, which requires women to obtain the consent of a male relative for any major life decisions.
Activists and diplomats have speculated that the arrests may have been aimed at appeasing conservative elements opposed to social reforms pushed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. They may also have been meant as a message to activists not to push demands out of sync with the government’s own agenda.
The prince has courted the West to support his reform drive but his reputation was tarnished after Saudi agents killed Khashoggi, a royal insider-turned-critic, last October at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.
Dozens of other activists, intellectuals and clerics have been arrested separately in the past two years in an apparent bid to stamp out possible opposition.