TRIAL OF PROMINENT WOMEN ACTIVISTS on charges connected with their human rights works and contacts with foreign journalists and diplomats, began in Saudi court this Wednesday. The case has attracted western criticism of the kingdom. Western diplomats and media were denied entry to the hearing, regardless of petitioning the authorities to allow them attend the hearing. They were, rather, escorted out of the building.
The charge list includes Rights Campaigner Loujain al-Hathloul, University Professor Hatoon al-Fassi and Blogger Eman al-Nafjan. Human rights groups say the women were expected to respond to charges that fall under an “article of the kingdom’s cybercrime law” that stipulate jail sentences of up to five years.
There has been huge global interest in the case, which includes all 28 EU members, Canada and Australia. They have all called on Riyadh to free the activists. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both raised the issue of trial of the activities during recent visits to Riyadh.
Nine United State senators, last week, wrote public letter requesting King Salman for immediate and unconditional release of prisoners held on what they described as “dubious charges related to their activism”. They cited many of the women currently on trial in the letter.
Will Riyadh bend to international pressure. This remains to be seen – which means the women may possibly be discharged or pardoned. In defiant of international pressure, Riyadh may pursue harsh sentences in the cases which critics said would reveal that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may not be taken seriously for his promise to modernize Saudi Arabia.
The women activists have been in detention for weeks, before Saudi authority lifted the ban on women driving cars under the Conservative Kingdom in June 2018. It was seen as efforts by the authority to relax social rules in order to boost the economy. The past two years, have seen numbers of other activists, intellectuals and clerics, separately, arrested, perhaps, ostensibly to stamp out possible opposition.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been courting western countries to support Riyadh’s economic and social reforms. His reputation was smeared when, last October, Saudi agents were alleged to have killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Kingdom’s Istanbul Consulate, which sparked international furore.
Human Rights Campaigner, Loujain al-Hathloul’s brother told members of US Congress this month, that the charges against Hathloul include communicating with 15 to 20 foreign journalists in Saudi Arabia, attempting to apply for a job at the United Nations, and attending digital privacy training.
Saudi Public Prosecutor, in May 2018, said the women, along with several men, were arrested on suspicion of harming Saudi interests and offering support to hostile elements abroad. Saudi media branded some of them “traitors” and “agents of embassies”, that are infuriating Western allies.
Human Rights Groups said some of the women have been held in solitary confinement and subjected to mistreatment and torture – including electric shocks, flogging and sexual assault. Saudi officials denied the allegations, according to Reuters.
Reuters reports said the case was moved from high-security terrorism tribunal to the Riyadh criminal court at the last minute without explanation, possibly, portraying Saudi’s compassionate handling of the cases, after months of pressure and lobbying by western governments.