British Columbia

Detained Saudi women's rights activists appear in court

Women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia appeared in a closed-door court hearing Wednesday on unknown charges after being detained in a crackdown last year, making their first appearance before a judge in a case that has sparked international outrage.

Authorities barred Western diplomats and journalists from the hearing in Riyadh

Loujain al-Hathloul, a graduate of the University of British Columbia, is a Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist who has been jailed in the kingdom since May 2018. (Facebook)

Women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia appeared in a closed-door court hearing Wednesday on unknown charges after being detained in a crackdown last year, making their first appearance before a judge in a case that has sparked international outrage.

Amnesty International said that those brought to court included Loujain al-Hathloul, a University of British Columbia graduate, who has said she was abused and threatened with death while in detention because of her activism. The watchdog said others included Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef.

The women are among about a dozen prominent activists who were arrested last May in the weeks before a ban on women driving cars in the conservative kingdom was lifted.

Saudi authorities did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday, and Saudi state media did not immediately report on the hearing.

Authorities barred Western diplomats and journalists from the hearing in Riyadh, a person with knowledge of the hearing told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

Al-Hathloul's brother Walid and Amnesty International said the court appearance was moved to a criminal court from one specialized in terrorism cases.

It wasn't immediately clear if that meant they faced lesser charges.

Activists seen as icons

Amnesty International said the women brought to court are seen as icons of the women's rights movement in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Hathloul attended the University of British Columbia between 2009 and 2013, graduating with a degree in French. (Loujain Al-Hathloul/Facebook)

The government previously has accused them of national security crimes, including working with "foreign entities" to harm the interests of the kingdom. State-backed papers ran headlines declaring them "traitors" months before Wednesday's hearing.

"It is quite concerning that they are likely to be charged for simply defending women's rights," said Amnesty International's Samah Hadid.

Allegations of torture 

Activists say some of them, including al-Hathloul, were held in solitary confinement and subjected to mistreatment and torture, including electric shocks, flogging and sexual assault.

Saudi officials have denied those allegations.

Al-Hathloul, who has advocated for 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 United Arab Emirates.

Overturning the driving ban was part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's efforts to court the West to support his reform drive. But his reputation was tarnished after Saudi agents killed Jamal Khashoggi, a royal insider-turned-critic, last October at the kingdom's Istanbul consulate.

Dozens of other activists, intellectuals and clerics have been arrested separately in the past two years in an apparent bid to stamp out possible opposition.

With files from Reuters