Detained Saudi women activists appear in court

15 Mars, 2019, 06:43 | Auteur: Anatole Charbonneau
  • Saudi women's activists stand trial nearly a year after detention

Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Hatoon al-Fassi are among around 10 women appearing before the criminal court in Riyadh, the capital, where charges will be presented against them, court president Ibrahim al-Sayari said.

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

Saudi Arabia's human rights record has been the subject of global criticism, and was rebuked by the U.N. Human Rights Council last week for the first time since the panel was established in 2006.

More than a dozen activists, many of whom campaigned for years for the right to drive, were arrested in May last year - just a month before the kingdom ended its longstanding ban on female motorists.

A few were previously released without trial.

At the time of the arrests, the public prosecutor said five men and four women were being held on suspicion of harming the country's interests and offering support to hostile elements overseas.

State-backed media labelled them as traitors and "agents of embassies".

Some of the women appeared in the courtroom together on Wednesday, but their cases appeared to be separate, with relatives entering only for certain parts of the session.

ALQST, a Saudi rights group based in London, said Wednesday that the women are being charged under the country's Cyber Crime law with offenses related to their activism, including contacting human rights groups.

At the time, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said at least 15 human rights defenders and women's rights activists critical of the Saudi government had been arrested or detained arbitrarily since 15 May.

The status of legal representation was unclear.

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In practices that have been going on for decades, citizens detained by the authorities can be held incommunicado, denied access to lawyers, kept in the dark about the charges against them and, most worryingly, abused during interrogation and coerced into signing confessions.

Hathloul's brother tweeted late on Tuesday that the family had been informed that the trial had been moved to the criminal court from the specialised criminal court, which was set up to try terrorism cases but is often used for political offences.

It was unclear what was behind the decision, but diplomats said they were hopeful it signalled a more lenient handling of the cases after months of lobbying by Western governments.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his British counterpart have said they raised the issue with Saudi authorities during recent visits.

It remains to be seen if Riyadh will bend to that pressure - with the women possibly receiving acquittals or pardons - or pursue harsh sentences.

Their arrests were part of a rolling crackdown, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, that analysts said was aimed at sidelining his competitors, consolidating power and portraying the crown prince, at home and overseas, as the sole architect of reform and progress in the kingdom.

The prince has courted the West to support his reform drive but his reputation was tarnished after Saudi agents killed Khashoggi, a royal insider-turned-critic, last October at the kingdom's Istanbul consulate.

Al-Hathloul, who had advocated an end to the driving ban and the kingdom's male guardianship system, was previously detained twice, including for 73 days in 2014 after she attempted to drive into Saudi Arabia from the neighbouring United Arab Emirates.

Nafjan and Yousef participated in a protest against the driving ban in 2013. Al-Yousef also authored a petition, which al-Nafjan and al-Hathloul signed, in 2016 seeking to end male guardianship, which requires women to obtain the consent of a male relative for any major life decisions.

Activists and diplomats have speculated that the arrests may have been aimed at appeasing conservative elements opposed to the relaxation of social strictures. They may also have been meant as a message to activists not to push demands out of sync with the government's own agenda.

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