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Saudi women activists back in court as West watches

April 3, 2019 at 9:15 pm

Some of the female Saudi Arabian activists detained by Saudi authorities – From right to left: Samar Badawi, Aziza al-Yusuf and Loujain Al-Halloul [Aljazeera]

Nearly a dozen prominent Saudi women activists returned to court on Wednesday to face charges related to human rights work and contacts with foreign journalists and diplomats, in a case that has intensified Western criticism of a major Mideast ally, Reuters reports.

Three of the women – blogger Eman al-Nafjan, academic Aziza al-Yousef and conservative preacher Ruqayya al-Mohareb – were temporarily released last week on condition they attend future sessions.

They were seen entering the courthouse on Wednesday.

Riyadh’s criminal court had been expected to rule on requests for temporary releases for the others, but sources familiar with the proceedings said no decision was announced.

Instead, the public prosecutor replied to the women’s defences, the people said without providing details. Few of the charges have been made public in the highly scrutinised case.

The siblings of one woman, Loujain al-Hathloul, said on Twitter that the prosecution denied torture allegations made by some of the defendants during last week’s session. Rights groups have documented mistreatment in detention including electric shocks, flogging and sexual assault.

READ: Leaked report finds abuse, torture of Saudi political prisoners

Another hearing is expected in two weeks.

Western diplomats and media, including Reuters, have been denied entry to the trial, which has drawn attention to the kingdom’s rights record after the murder last year of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Three dozen countries, including all 28 EU members, Canada and Australia, have called on Riyadh to free the activists. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised the issue during recent visits.

The temporary releases and the cases’ transfer from a high-security terrorism court at the last minute without explanation may signal a more lenient handling of the case after months of lobbying by Western governments.

READ: Saudi women activists detail torture allegations in court 

Yet it remains to be seen if Riyadh will bend to international pressure or pursue harsh sentences in a case critics say has revealed the limits of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s promises to modernise Saudi Arabia.

The activists were detained weeks before a ban on women driving cars in the conservative kingdom was lifted last June.

At least five men were detained in the same sweep, though none of them are currently on trial. Rights groups say two of them have been released, but the status of the others is unclear.

Dozens of other activists, intellectuals and clerics have been arrested separately in the past two years in an apparent bid to stamp out opposition to the government.