Several Saudi Arabian women rights activists stood trial on Wednesday for the first time since they were detained last year in a case that has intensified global scrutiny of the kingdom’s human rights record following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Hatoon Al-Fassi are among around 10 women appearing before the Criminal Court in the capital, Riyadh, where charges will be presented against them, court president Ibrahim al-Sayari said.
He was speaking to reporters and diplomats, who were barred from attending the session.
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.
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 abroad. State-backed media labelled them as traitors and “agents of embassies”, unnerving foreign diplomats in the key US ally.
Al-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 Specialized Criminal Court, which was set up to try “terrorism” cases but is often used for political offences. It was not clear what was behind the decision.
The kingdom’s public prosecution has still not specified the charges. According to Amnesty International al-Hathloul had no access to legal representation.
“We fear she will be charged and tried on terrorism-related charges for peaceful human rights work,” Amnesty tweeted.