Wed, 22 May 2019

Prominent Saudi women's rights activists are due back in court on Wednesday in a trial that has drawn international criticism, just days after campaigners reported a new crackdown on their supporters.

The 11 activists, among them Loujain al-Hathloul who has accused her interrogators of sexual abuse and torture during nearly a year in custody, face charges that include contact with foreign media, diplomats and human rights groups.

A panel of three judges at the Riyadh criminal court are expected to respond to the defence case, submitted by the women earlier this month.

Western diplomats and media have been barred from attending the high-profile trial that kicked off last month.

The women are expected to attend separate court hearings, according to people with access to the trial.

Riyadh has faced pressure from Western governments to release the women, most of whom were detained last year in a wide-ranging crackdown against activists just before the historic lifting of a decades-long ban on female motorists.

Three of them - activist Aziza al-Yousef, blogger Eman al-Nafjan and preacher Rokaya al-Mohareb - have been granted bail.

In an apparent crackdown on the women's supporters earlier this month, Saudi authories arrested at least nine writers and academics, including two US-Saudi dual nationals.

Al-Yousef's son, Salah al-Haidar, is among the two Americans detained.

Last Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he had pressed Saudi Arabia - a close US ally - to release the US citizens.

Crackdown

The crackdown is the first since the brutal murder of prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October, which sparked unprecedented international scrutiny of the kingdom's human rights record.

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People close to the Saudi establishment have warned that public criticism by family members could prolong their detention.

At one emotionally charged court hearing, some women broke down as they accused interrogators of subjecting them to electric shocks, flogging and groping in detention, two people with access to the trial told AFP.

A Saudi prosecutor roundly rejected the accusation, witnesses said, reiterating the government's stance. The government has said the detained women enjoy all the rights afforded to them under Saudi law.

Torture allegations

The women on trial were arrested last May and branded as traitors.

Five men arrested at the same time are not on trial. Rights groups say two of them have been released, but the others' status is unclear.

Another US-Saudi national, Walid al-Fitaihi, has been imprisoned since 2017 under Riyadh's anti-corruption campaign. His son told US senators last month he had been tortured in detention, with the tactics including electric shocks and whipping.

The siblings of one woman, Loujain al-Hathloul, who have publicised her case in US media, say men describing themselves as "close to the state" had asked her parents to stop them from speaking out.

"We stayed silent for eight months. We thought that being silent would solve the issue," her brother Walid al-Hathloul told CNN.

"We found out at the end of the day that this made the case even worse and that's why we're speaking out now. At the end of the day we didn't have any options but to speak out."

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