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Saudi prosecutors say women's rights activists to face trial

Prosecutors in Saudi Arabia have referred detained women's rights activists to trial, saying those charged "enjoy all rights preserved by the laws in the kingdom" after they were reportedly tortured in custody.

News comes amid reports some of the women have been subjected to caning, electrocution and sexual assault

Human rights groups have criticized the arrests, which come amid a series of crackdowns led by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (How Hwee Young/pool photo via AP)

Prosecutors in Saudi Arabia have referred detained women's rights activists to trial, saying those charged "enjoy all rights preserved by the laws in the kingdom" after they were reportedly tortured in custody.

Prosecutors issued the statement late Friday, referring to their earlier June statement that marked the activists' arrest just before Saudi Arabia granted women the right to drive.

Prosecutors alleged those arrested had the "aim to undermine the kingdom's security, stability and national unity."

Several people with knowledge of their arrest have told The Associated Press that some of the women detained have been subjected to caning, electrocution and sexual assault. All spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal and to protect personal details about the detainees.

The Saudi government did not respond to questions about the women's cases early Saturday.

However, the London-based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, owned by a Saudi media group long associated with the Al Saud royal family, published a story Saturday quoting a deputy prosecutor denying those detained had been tortured.

The newspaper quoted deputy prosecutor Shalaan bin Rajih al-Shalaan as saying the detained face charges over co-operating with those "hostile to the kingdom" and for allegedly recruiting "persons in a sensitive government entity to obtain information and official documents." He did not elaborate, nor did he offer evidence to support the charges.

The women, who include activists in their 20s as well as mothers, grandmothers and retired professors, have been accused of vague national security violations in connection with their human rights work. Canadian criticism of the arrests led to Saudi Arabia cutting diplomatic ties to Ottawa.

Canada shows support

Canada's Global Affairs department has again shown its support for the activists.

"As we have said before, we are very concerned by reports that women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia have been mistreated," a spokesperson for the department told CBC News in an emailed statement on Saturday.

"Canada is a country that understands how important it is to stand up for human rights and women's rights around the world."

Human rights groups have criticized the arrests, which come amid a series of crackdowns led by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the son of King Salman.

"The Saudi prosecution is bringing charges against the women's rights activists instead of releasing them unconditionally," said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The Saudi authorities have done nothing to investigate serious allegations of torture, and now, it's the women's rights activists, not any torturers, who face criminal charges and trials."

The kingdom also faces widespread international criticism over the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October, allegedly by members of Prince Mohammed's entourage, as well as over its years-long war in Yemen.

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