Saudi women activists, detained for almost a year without charge, face “bogus” charges including contacting foreign media, human rights campaigners and international organizations, Amnesty International said on Thursday.
The trial of at least 10 women opened in Riyadh’s criminal court on Wednesday after they were held last year in a sweeping crackdown on activists, legal authorities said, without specifying the charges. Amnesty put the number of women who appeared in court at 11, adding that they were charged with promoting women’s rights and calling for the end of the restrictive male guardianship system.
“The women were also charged with contacting international organizations, foreign media and other activists, including… Amnesty International,” the rights group said, calling the charges “bogus.”
London-based rights group ALQST has said the women were charged under the kingdom’s sweeping cyber crime law, which carries prison sentences of up to 10 years, based on their contact with “hostile entities” including human rights organizations. “The charges against the activists are the latest example of the Saudi authorities abusing legislation and the justice system to silence peaceful activists and deter them from working on the human rights situation in the country,” said Amnesty International’s Middle East campaigns director Samah Hadid. “This trial is yet another stain on the Saudi authorities’ appalling human rights record, and shows how empty the government’s claims of reform really are.”
More than a dozen activists, many of whom campaigned for years for the right to drive, were arrested in May last year—just a month before the kingdom ended its longstanding ban on female motorists. Some were subsequently released.
At the time the activists were accused by some government officials of undermining national security and aiding enemies of the state, while state-backed media branded them as traitors and “agents of embassies.”
A court official said the women would have access to independent lawyers for the trial, a right that family members claimed they had been denied for the entire stretch of their detention.
The official did not specify a date for the next court hearing.
The trial of the women comes as Saudi Arabia seeks to placate international criticism over the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate last October.