Saudi Arabian women's rights activists today stood trial for the first time since their arrest over nine months ago.
Loujain Al-Hathloul, Aziza Al-Yousef, Eman Al-Nafjan and Hatoon Al-Fassi are among ten women to appear before the Criminal Court in the capital Riyadh, where charges were presented against them, court president Ibrahim Al-Sayari said.
He was speaking to reporters and more than a dozen diplomats from the United States and Europe, who were barred from entering the court after receiving no response to earlier requests. Al-Sayari cited privacy concerns for not making the trial public.
The women are among more than a dozen prominent activists, including several men, arrested in the weeks before a ban on women driving cars in the conservative kingdom was lifted last June. 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 abroad. State-backed media labelled them as traitors and "agents of embassies".
Some of the women appeared in the courtroom together, but their cases appeared to be separate, with relatives entering only for certain parts of the session.
ALQST, a London-based Saudi rights group, said the women were charged under the kingdom's cybercrime law, which stipulates prison sentences ranging from one to ten years. The accusations are related to human rights work and communications with "hostile entities", ALQST said on Twitter.
The status of legal representation was unclear. Rights groups have previously said the activists had no access to lawyers during more than nine months of detention and interrogation.
Relatives said they were told at the last minute that the trial had been moved from the Specialised Criminal Court, which was set up to try terrorism cases but is often used for political offences.
Three dozen countries, including all 28 EU members, called on Riyadh last week to free the activists after rights groups warned that they had been tortured in detention.