The trial of at least 10 women activists, who have been in jail since May last year, began on March 13 at a criminal court in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The rights group following their cases said the women were charged in three separate sessions. However, “none of the women had access to lawyers,” the UK-based Saudi rights organization, Al Qst, said.
Three prominent activists, Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Youssef, are among those languishing in different jails after they were booked under cybercrime laws last May and accused of “working against national unity”. The activists were branded “traitors” by the Saudi media for staying in touch with “foreign actors”.
Last week, 36 countries criticized Saudi Arabia at the United Nations for detaining the women and sought their release. The countries expressed their concern “about the use of counter-terrorism law and other national security provisions against individuals peacefully exercising their rights and freedoms”.
In January, a group of British parliamentarians and independent lawyers had published a report, titled Detention Review Panel into Women Activist Detainees in Saudi Arabia. The report stated that the detainees were subjected to sleep deprivation and assault, and were threatened with rape and murder, in addition to being placed in solitary confinement. “The culpability for torture rests not only with the direct perpetrators but also with those responsible for it, and those who acquiesce to it. Saudi authorities at the highest levels could, in principle, be responsible for the crime of torture,” it said.
Loujain, 28, has been jailed several times by Saudi authorities for defying the ban on women drivers and campaigning against the male guardianship law. The authorities charged her with attempts to destabilize the kingdom. A smear campaign was launched against her in social media, branding her a ‘traitor’.
Iman, an academic and women’s rights activist, was blogging about Saudi women’s issues since 2008, covering the driving ban, as well as other cultural and social issues related to women’s rights, local elections, Saudi Arabia’s anti-terror laws and the work of human rights activists.
Similarly, Aziza, a retired professor from King Saud University and a mother of five children, was one of the lead campaigners against the Saudi male guardianship laws that stipulated that Saudi women needed to seek permission from their male relatives to travel, attend universities or get medical treatment.
The activists were arrested even as Saudi Arabia went on a publicity overdrive, touting its process of ‘liberalisation’ through steps such as allowing women to drive. The expensive campaign, which sought to portray crown prince Mohammed bin Salman as the driver of the country’s social progress, was met with heavy criticism, considering Saudi Arabia’s record in Yemen and in other military interventions. It finally went off the rails when Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was revealed to have been brutally murdered in the country’s consulate in Istanbul.