Saudi Arabia Puts Group of Women's Rights Activists on Trial

(Bloomberg) -- Several of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent women’s rights activists were put on trial on Wednesday as the kingdom moves forward in prosecuting a group of citizens accused of undermining state security.

Loujain Al Hathloul, 29, and Aziza Alyousef, 60, were among those facing charges at Riyadh’s criminal court. They’re part of a group of 10 women who’ll stand trial individually, according to Sheikh Ibrahim Al Sayari, head of the court. Blogger and activist Eman Al Nafjan and feminist academic Hatoon Al Fassi also face charges, he said.

Authorities didn’t release the charges against the defendants, but earlier this month the public prosecutor’s office said they are accused of “coordinated activity to undermine the security, stability and social peace of the kingdom.” AlQST, a human rights group run by a U.K.-based Saudi dissident, said most charges were related to their public expression of their opinions and rights work, and alleged communication with “hostile entities” including rights organizations.

Saudi Arabia Puts Group of Women's Rights Activists on Trial

The government’s Center for International Communication didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The women’s detention in May along with male supporters sparked controversy at home and abroad, especially after human rights groups said some of them were tortured. The government has denied they were mistreated and said they’ve been granted all the rights guaranteed to them by Saudi law.

Saudi Arabia Puts Group of Women's Rights Activists on Trial

Many of them had fought for years for the right to drive -- granted a month after their arrest -- and an end to the kingdom’s guardianship system, which renders women the legal dependents of a male relative.

Abroad, their detention has become a symbol of a political crackdown by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, even as he opens up the economy and loosens social restrictions in the conservative kingdom. His roundup of hundreds of businesspeople and royals in a declared campaign against corruption, and the murder of government critic Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October have drawn increased international scrutiny of the kingdom’s human rights record. Authorities vehemently deny the prince played any role in Khashoggi’s killing.

The prince has said the women’s detention was unrelated to their activism. In an interview in October, Prince Mohammed said authorities have evidence the activists had connections with foreign intelligence agencies and were leaking information. He invited reporters to visit the prosecutor to review the evidence. Repeated requests to do so weren’t granted.

A group of 20 diplomats and foreign reporters were barred from entering the courtroom in Riyadh on Wednesday. Al Sayari said journalists weren’t allowed without permission from the judge in the case in order to protect the privacy of the defendants. The ministries of justice and media didn’t respond to prior requests to attend.

The proceedings on Wednesday would only include a reading of charges and an opportunity for the defendants to respond, Al Sayari said. Relatives and local media were allowed to enter, he added.

The trial originally had been scheduled to take place at a court typically reserved for terrorism and state security cases, but was transferred to a regular criminal court, Al Hathloul’s brother Walid said on Twitter. Further hearings are to be held in the coming weeks.

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