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Female activists go on trial in Saudi Arabia after nearly one year in detention

Parstoday 2019-03-14 07:06:00
Women\'s rights activists held demonstration organized by Amnesty International outside the Saudi embassy in Paris, France, on March 8, 2019.

A group of Saudi women's rights activists have appeared in court following a detention period of about one year without a charge or trial in a case that has ratcheted up scrutiny of the kingdom's human rights record in the wake of the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

According to Press TV, Court President Ibrahim al-Sayari said Loujain al-Hathloul, Hatoon al-Fassi, Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan were among the 10 women who attended the session in the Criminal Court in the capital Riyadh on Wednesday.

The relatives of the women were allowed to attend the opening court session, while journalists and Western diplomats were denied entry.

"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's West Asia 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 AFP.

The charges raised against the women were not immediately disclosed to the public.

Human Rights Watch denounces trial as ‘escalating repression’

More than a dozen activists were arrested last May, and held on suspicion of harming the country’s interests and offering support to hostile elements abroad.

At the time, international rights groups reported the detention of prominent female activists among the detainees, who had previously campaigned for the right to drive and an end to the kingdom’s male guardianship system.

Some were later released, but activists have said several of the women were held in solitary confinement for months and faced torture and sexual harassment.

Saudi authorities have so far labeled the detainees “traitors,” infuriating the country’s rights activists who fear additional arrests amid much-hyped reports of reforms led by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Reforms have been accompanied by a heavy-handed crackdown on dissent, which has targeted clerics as well as some of the very female activists who campaigned for years to end the driving ban.

Last Wednesday, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called on Saudi authorities to release the women's rights activists.

Adam Coogle, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, condemned the trial and "alleged mistreatment" of the women as "another sign of escalating repression in Saudi Arabia."

"Authorities should immediately halt these unfair proceedings and release any activist charged solely based on their peaceful activism."

The outcry over the murder of Khashoggi at the kingdom’s consulate in Turkey’s largest city of Istanbul on October 2, 2018 increased scrutiny of the detained women's rights activists.