Ten women who challenged Saudi Arabia’s now-repealed ban on female drivers faced a judge Wednesday where criminal charges were presented against them.
The women are accused of “coordinated activity to undermine the security, stability and social peace of the kingdom,” the state prosecutor said. Officials that include Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have accused the women of having illegal contacts with unspecified foreign entities, specifically foreign intelligence agencies.
The crown prince invited reporters to review evidence in the case but news outlets’ subsequent requests to see it were denied. Diplomats and media were similarly barred from the courtroom in Riyadh on Wednesday.
Last week, dozens of countries, including the entire European Union, called on Saudi Arabia to release the activists. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued they should be set free when he visited the kingdom, as did British leaders.
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The women, who were arrested in May before the country lifted its longtime ban on female drivers, have been held in solitary confinement, tortured with electric shocks, beaten and sexually assaulted, activists said.
The brother of Loujain al-Hathloul, one of the detained women, tweeted that the trial would be moved from the Specialized Criminal Court to the regular criminal court but no reason was given for the change.
He also tweeted in Arabic, “After 10 months of imprisonment, and half an hour before the trial starts, Loujain may finally know what the charges against her are but, so far, nobody knows what the formal charges are.”
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Amnesty International said al-Hathloul, a graduate of Canada’s University of British Columbia, didn’t have access to an attorney. She was arrested in 2014 for attempting to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates.
“We fear she will be charged and tried on terrorism-related charges for peaceful human rights work,” Amnesty International tweeted.
Also due in court were Eman al-Nafjan, a feminist blogger; Aziza al-Yousef, a retired professor and seasoned women’s rights activist; and Amal al-Harbi, an advocate for political prisoners.
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Saudi Arabia is already facing increased scrutiny after the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the country’s consulate in Istanbul last year.
His body was never found. U.S. intelligence officials have said bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s death but the Trump administration wouldn’t go that far, saying there wasn’t enough evidence to come to that conclusion.