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In Saudi trial, detained women speak of torture: witnesses

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Riyadh (AFP)

Saudi women activists detained for almost a year offered their defence at an emotionally charged hearing on Wednesday, saying they had suffered torture and sexual harassment during interrogation, courtroom witnesses 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 hugged each other and their family members gathered before a three-judge panel in Riyadh's criminal court as they accused interrogators of electrocuting, flogging and groping them in detention, two people with access to the trial told AFP.

The government strongly denies the women were tortured.

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.

Some of the women have appealed for bail, family members told AFP.

The women were accused of links with 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, rights groups including Human Rights Watch say.

The trial has intensified scrutiny of the kingdom's human rights record following global outrage over journalist Jamal Khashoggi's murder by Saudi agents last October.

The 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 activist Loujain, were recently made to sign letters in prison requesting a royal pardon from King Salman, family members told AFP.

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