Rights groups condemn Saudi over trial of women activists

Dubai (AFP) –


Rights groups denounced Saudi Arabia Saturday over its decision to put jailed women activists on trial after holding them for nearly a year without charge.

The public prosecution said Friday that the activists had been referred to court, as its investigation is complete.

Some of those detained have allegedly faced torture and sexual harassment during interrogation, following their arrest in May last year in a sweeping crackdown on campaigners.

"The Saudi authorities have done nothing to investigate serious allegations of torture," said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

"Now, it's the women's rights activists, not any torturers, who face criminal charges and trials."

More than a dozen activists were arrested just a month before the historic lifting of a decades-long ban on women drivers.

Most were accused of undermining security and aiding enemies of the state. Some were later released.

Amnesty International called Friday's announcement a "shocking sign of the kingdom's escalating crackdown on activists" and demanded "the immediate release of prisoners of conscience."

Trials in the ultra-conservative kingdom are often shrouded in secrecy.

The prosecutor did not specify the charges nor give a date for their trial.

But the announcement sparked speculation that the activists could be released under the cover of a judicial process, after the crackdown prompted scathing criticism against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

"There is a legal process moving forward and I think it will end well," Ali Shihabi, founder of pro-Saudi government think tank Arabia Foundation, said on Twitter.

"Let us see the end result and then judge, not jump to conclusions."

Those still detained include Aziza al-Yousef, a retired professor at Riyadh's King Saud University.

Another is Loujain al-Hathloul, who was held for more than 70 days in 2014 for attempting to drive from neighbouring United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia.

Following their arrest, state-backed newspapers published front-page pictures of some of the activists with the word "traitor" stamped across them in red.

Loujain was one of the activists who faced sexual harassment and torture during interrogation, her family and rights groups said.

The Saudi government has rejected the allegation.