Ten Saudi Arabian women on Wednesday appeared in court for the first time since being detained last year in a sweeping crackdown on activists, ratcheting up scrutiny of the kingdom’s human rights record.
The trial of the women, who have been held for nearly a year without charge, came as Saudi Arabia seeks to placate international criticism over last year’s brutal murder of insider-turned-critic Jamal Khashoggi.
Prominent activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Hatoon al-Fassi, Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan were among those who appeared at a criminal court, where they heard the charges against them, court president Ibrahim al-Sayari said.
Family members of the women — some of whom allegedly faced torture and sexual harassment during interrogation — were permitted to attend the court session, but a group of about two dozen foreign journalists and Western diplomats were barred from entering.
The charges against the women were not disclosed to the public.
However, London-based rights group ALQST said that they were held under the kingdom’s sweeping cybercrime law, which carries prison sentences of up to 10 years, based on their contact with “hostile entities,” including human rights organizations.
Al-Sayari said that the women would have access to independent lawyers for the trial, a right that family members claimed they had been denied for the entire stretch of their detention.
“It now seems that the authorities will charge the women’s rights activists, after keeping them in detention for nearly one year without any access to lawyers, and where they faced torture, ill treatment and sexual harassment,” Amnesty International Middle East campaigns director Samah Hadid said.
“The authorities are now treating defending women’s rights as a crime, which is a dangerous escalation in the country and their crackdown on human rights activism,” Hadid told reporters.
More than a dozen activists, many of whom campaigned for years for the right to drive, were arrested in May last year — just a month before the kingdom ended its long-standing ban on female motorists.
At the time, they were accused by some government officials of undermining national security and aiding enemies of the state, while state-backed media branded them as traitors and “agents of embassies.”
The trial and alleged mistreatment of the women “is yet another sign of escalating repression in Saudi Arabia,” Human Rights Watch researcher Adam Coogle said.
“Authorities should immediately halt these unfair proceedings and release any activist charged solely based on their peaceful activism,” he told reporters.
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