Saudi women's rights activists stand trial in criminal court

Elias Hubbard
March 14, 2019

A group of Saudi Arabia's most prominent women's rights advocates appeared in court in the Saudi capital Wednesday at the start of a trial that could signal whether the government intends to roll back an aggressive, years-long crackdown on political activists.

Those who appeared included Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent figure in the campaign to win Saudi women the right to drive.

On Wednesday, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), pressed the Trump administration's nominee as ambassador to Saudi Arabia "on the need for accountability following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi", according to a statement from Durbin's office.

Last week, more than 30 countries criticised Saudi Arabia at the United Nations security council for detaining the women.

The State Department's human rights report for 2018 released Wednesday notes Saudi Arabia's killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi without mentioning Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who U.S. intelligence services believe ordered the premeditated murder.

The women are among more than a dozen activists, including men, arrested in the weeks before a ban on women driving cars in the conservative kingdom was lifted.

A few were previously released without trial.

At the time of the arrests, the public prosecutor said five men and four women were being held on suspicion of harming Saudi interests and offering support to hostile elements overseas. State-backed media have previously branded them as traitors and "agents of embassies".

Relatives were allowed to enter only for certain parts of the session.

A UK-based Saudi rights organisation, ALQST, said they were charged under the country's cyber-crimes law. The charges carry sentences of up to five years in prison, but prosecutors have also asked the judge to "impose other discretionary punishments", the group said on Twitter.

At the time, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said at least 15 human rights defenders and women's rights activists critical of the Saudi government had been arrested or detained arbitrarily since 15 May. Relatives of some of the women said that during their detention, they were not given access to legal representation.

Women hold signs reading
Saudi women's rights activists stand trial in criminal court

The case against them opened at the central criminal court in Riyadh, having been transferred away from a terrorism court at the last minute. The reason for the decision was not clear.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his British counterpart have said they raised the issue with Saudi authorities during recent visits.

It remains to be seen if Riyadh will bend to that pressure - with the women possibly receiving acquittals or pardons - or pursue harsh sentences.

Their arrests were part of a rolling crackdown, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, that analysts said was aimed at sidelining his competitors, consolidating power and portraying the crown prince, at home and overseas, as the sole architect of reform and progress in the kingdom.

This is the first time Alhathloul appeared in court since she was picked up in a sweep of arrests in Saudi Arabia last May that targeted rights activists, journalists and academics.

The outcry over the murder increased scrutiny of the detained women's rights activists, who also include Nouf Abdelaziz, Mayaa al-Zahrani, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Saada, Shadan al-Onezi, Amal al-Harbi and Mohammed al-Rabia.

"It now seems that the authorities will charge the women's rights activists, after keeping them in detention for almost one year without any access to lawyers, and where they faced torture, ill treatment and sexual harassment", said Amnesty International's Middle East campaigns director Samah Hadid.

The Saudi government's reaction is nearly invariably the same - it denies all allegations of torture, it fails to punish those who carry it out, and it rejects all worldwide criticism as "unjustified interference in its internal affairs".

Ms Badawi, who was given the US International Women of Courage Award in 2012, is known for challenging Saudi Arabia's male guardianship system.

Nafjan and 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.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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