Nearly a dozen women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia have appeared before a three-judge panel to face charges related to their human rights work and contacts with foreign journalists and diplomats in a case that has drawn international attention.
The women, including rights campaigner Loujain al-Hathloul, university professor Hatoon al-Fassi and blogger Eman al-Nafjan, were expected to respond to charges on Wednesday, including some that rights groups say fall under an article of the kingdom’s cybercrime law stipulating jail sentences of up to five years.
Foreign diplomats and media were denied entry to the hearing and escorted from the building, according to Reuters news agency.
Three dozen countries, including all 28 European Union member states, Canada and Australia, have called on Saudi Arabia to free the activists. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both raised the issue during recent visits to the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
Nine prominent US senators wrote a public letter last week asking King Salman for the immediate and unconditional release of prisoners held on “dubious charges related to their activism”, citing many of the women currently on trial.
It remains to be seen if Riyadh will bend to international pressure – with the women possibly receiving acquittals or pardons – or pursue harsh sentences in a case critics say has revealed the limits of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman‘s promises to modernise Saudi Arabia.
The activists were arrested weeks before a ban on women driving cars in the conservative kingdom was lifted last June under efforts to relax social rules and boost the economy.
Dozens of other activists, intellectuals and Muslim scholars have been arrested separately in the past two years in an apparent bid to stamp out possible opposition.
Prince Mohammed has courted the West to support ambitious economic and social reforms, but his reputation was tarnished when Saudi agents killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate, sparking an international furore.
The charges against al-Hathloul include communicating with 15 to 20 foreign journalists in Saudi Arabia, attempting to apply for a job at the United Nations, and attending digital privacy training, her brother told members of the US Congress this month.
The Saudi public prosecutor said last May that the women, along with several men, had been arrested on suspicion of harming Saudi interests and offering support to hostile elements abroad. State-backed media labeled some of them as traitors and “agents of embassies”, irritating Western allies.
Activists and diplomats have speculated that may have been meant as a message to activists not to push demands out of sync with the government’s own agenda, but Prince Prince Mohammed has denied that, accusing the women of working for Qatari and Iranian intelligence.
Rights groups say some of the women have been held in solitary confinement and subjected to mistreatment and torture, including electric shocks, flogging and sexual assault. Saudi officials have denied those allegations.