Saudi women activists detained for almost a year offered their defense at an emotionally charged hearing on Wednesday, alleging torture and sexual harassment during interrogation, courtroom sources said.
Eleven women responded to charges that rights groups say include contact with international media and human rights groups, in the second hearing of a high-profile trial that foreign reporters and diplomats are barred from attending. Some of them wept and consoled each other and their family members gathered before a three-judge panel in Riyadh’s criminal court as they accused interrogators of subjecting them to electric shocks and flogging and groping them in detention, two people with access to the trial said.
At least one of the detained women tried to commit suicide following her mistreatment, a close relative said.
The government, facing intense international scrutiny of its human rights record, denies the women were tortured or harassed.
The women, including prominent activist Loujain al-Hathloul, blogger Eman al-Nafjan and university professor Hatoon al-Fassi, were detained last summer in a sweeping crackdown on campaigners just before the historic lifting of a decades-long ban on female motorists. The women had long campaigned for the right to drive and to abolish the restrictive guardianship system that gives male relatives arbitrary authority over women.
Their trial has intensified criticism of the kingdom over human rights following global outrage over journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder by Saudi agents last October.
Loujain’s brother and sister, based overseas, have alleged that Saud al-Qahtani, a top adviser to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman who was fired over Khashoggi’s killing, oversaw the torture. “The top adviser of the prince was threatening to rape my sister, kill her, cut her body into pieces,” Walid al-Hathloul, Loujain’s brother, told CNN. “He’s the one who should be in court today, not my sister.”
Qahtani has not appeared in public since his sacking was announced.
Some of the detained women have appealed for bail, with the judges expected to make a decision on Thursday, family members said. The trial is set to resume on April 3, they added. There was no immediate comment from the criminal court.
At the time of their arrest, officials accused the women of links to foreign intelligence agencies, while state-backed media branded them traitors and “agents of embassies.” The charge sheets, however, make no mention of contact with foreign spies, campaigners who have reviewed the documents say.
Some of the charges against the women fell under a section of the kingdom’s sweeping cyber crime law, which carries prison sentences of up to five years.
Loujain asked the court for one month to respond to the charges saying she was not given enough time to prepare, Walid said. He added that his family had been stopped from taking written legal documents inside her prison cell. It was not clear how the court responded to the request.
The detained women were initially expected to appear in a court set up to handle terrorism-related cases. But trial was shifted to the criminal court at the last minute, without any explanation, after months of Western criticism.
That has triggered speculation the trial could pave the way for the women’s release after the crackdown sparked international criticism against Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto ruler. Some detainees, including Loujain, were recently made to sign letters in prison requesting a royal pardon from King Salman, family members said.
Western nations, including the European Union, the United States and Britain, appear to have stepped up pressure on the kingdom to release the activists.