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Saudi women activists on trial after a year in detention

FILE - In this March 29, 2014 file photo, Aziza al-Yousef drives a car on a highway in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving. Saudi authorities detained at least ten activists.
AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File
The women have allegedly faced torture and sexual harassment during interrogation

Ten Saudi women appeared in court Wednesday for the first time since being detained last year in a sweeping crackdown on activists, ratcheting up scrutiny of the kingdom's human rights record.

The trial of the women, who have been held for nearly a year without charge, comes as Saudi Arabia seeks to placate international criticism over last year's brutal murder of insider-turned-critic Jamal Khashoggi.

Prominent activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Hatoon al-Fassi, Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan were among those who attended Riyadh's criminal court, where they heard the charges against them, court president Ibrahim al-Sayari said.

Many of the women have been tortured while in Saudi custody, according to relatives and human rights groups, though authorities deny the allegations. 

Family members of the women -- some of whom allegedly faced sexual harassment in and torture during interrogation -- were permitted to attend the court session, but a group of around two dozen foreign journalists and Western diplomats were barred from entering.

Visibly distressed relatives huddled together outside the courtroom, clutching handwritten appeals for the judge as they waited their turn to see the detainees inside.

Saudi activist and campaigner Aziza al-Yousef was among the seven women's rights champions arrested ( FAYEZ NURELDINE (AFP) )

 

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

But London-based rights group ALQST said they were held under the kingdom's sweeping cyber crime law, which carries prison sentences of up to 10 years, based on their contact with "hostile entities" including human rights organisations.

- 'Escalating repression' -

Sayari said the women would have access to independent lawyers for the trial, a right that family members claimed they had been denied for the entire stretch of their detention.

"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," said Amnesty International's Middle East campaigns director Samah Hadid. "The Saudis need to change the page on this file badly -- its economy and success of its reform drive hinges on removing the negative perceptions that the arrests of these women has caused," she told AFP.

Prince Mohammed's much-trumpeted drive to modernise the conservative kingdom has been dented by the detentions, part of a wider crackdown by Saudi authorities on activists, clerics and critics in recent years seen as stamping out political dissent.

The arrests have resulted in further pressure on Saudi Arabia, which has faced global outrage over journalist Khashoggi's murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October.

Last week, 36 nations condemned Saudi Arabia over the murder, in a rare censure of the wealthy oil-rich kingdom at the UN Human Rights Council.

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