Middle East

Saudi women's rights activists to appear in court


Riyadh, Mar 13 (IANS): Several women's rights activists were to appear in a Saudi court on Wednesday, nearly a year after they were detained for "undermining national security", according to human rights groups and a relative of one detainee.

The first group of activists were detained in May 2018, shortly before the lifting of a ban on women driving, for which many of them had campaigned. The charges they face include supporting "hostile elements" and could carry long prison sentences, the BBC reported.

As many as 10 women were expected to appear at the criminal court in Riyadh on Wednesday, including prominent campaigners Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Hatoon al-Fassi. Journalists and diplomats are not allowed to attend the hearing.

According to reports citing rights groups and relatives of these women, some of the activists said in custody they were tortured, received beatings and electric shocks and they were headed to court despite complaints of not been given access to lawyers.

Detained activist Loujain al-Hathloul's sister Alia al-Hathloul said the activist informed the family in a phone call last week that her first trial session would be held in a specialised criminal court used to try terrorism cases, the Washington Post reported.

Loujain al-Hathloul, leading activist of the campaign to lift female driving ban in Saudi Arabia, was not notified of charges in the indictment, her sister said in a text message, according to the Post.

Also due in court, according to Amnesty International and other people briefed on the cases, were Eman al-Nafjan, who wrote a widely read feminist blog before her arrest; Aziza al-Yousef, a retired professor and veteran of the Saudi women's rights movement; and Amal al-Harbi, who fought for political prisoners, including her husband, Fowzan al-Harbi, a jailed human rights activist.

Last week, more than 30 countries at the UN Human Rights Council criticised Saudi Arabia for detaining the women.

The arrest of female activists was part of a broader campaign of arrests spearheaded by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the past two years, moves that analysts say were part of his effort to consolidate power.

The Public Prosecutor's office didn't specify the charges against these activists, but said they were suspected of undertaking "co-ordinated and organised activities that aim to undermine the Kingdom's security, stability and national unity".

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights said on Tuesday it feared the women might not get a fair trial.

Also among the detained women is the Saudi-American human rights campaigner Samar Badawi, sister of jailed blogger Raif Badawi.

Badawi, a receipient of the US International Women of Courage Award in 2012, is known for challenging Saudi Arabia's male guardianship system.

Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for "insulting Islam" online in 2014. His wife, Ensaf Haidar, lives in Canada and has become a Canadian citizen.


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