Saudi Arabia temporarily releases three detained women activists


Riyadh (AFP)

Saudi Arabia on Thursday temporarily released three out of 11 women detained last year in a sweeping crackdown on activists, state media said, amid intense international scrutiny of the kingdom's human rights record.

Blogger Eman al-Nafjan, retired lecturer Aziza al-Youssef and academic Rokaya al-Mohareb were freed after a second hearing on Wednesday in their high-profile trial at Riyadh's criminal court, a member of one of their families told AFP.

"The criminal court in Riyadh announces the provisional release of three detainees," the official Saudi Press Agency said, without naming them.

"The court will continue to hear their cases and they will attend the trial sessions... until the issuance of the final judgement."

Most of the women were detained last summer in a wide-ranging campaign against campaigners just before the historic lifting of a decades-long ban on female motorists.

Some of them offered their defence at an emotionally charged second hearing on Wednesday, alleging they were tortured and sexually harassed during interrogation.

Some wept and consoled each other and their family members gathered before a three-judge panel.

They accused interrogators of subjecting them to electric shocks, flogging them and groping them in detention, two people with access to the trial told AFP.

The three women who were released Thursday after nearly a year in detention will appear in court next Wednesday when the trial resumes, according to the relative of one of those released.

Confirming the names of the freed women, London-based rights group ALQST said other detained women were expected to be freed on Sunday.

"This is a long overdue step as these women should never have been jailed in the first place, and their release should certainly not be on a 'temporary' basis," said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International's Middle East director of research.

"They have been locked up, separated from their loved ones, subjected to torture and threats for simply peacefully calling for women's rights and expressing their views."

- Global criticism -

At least one of the detained women tried to commit suicide following her mistreatment, a close relative said.

The government, facing sharp global criticism of its human rights record, denies the women were tortured or harassed.

Most of the women were detained last summer in a wide-ranging 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 an end to the restrictive guardianship system that gives male relatives arbitrary authority over women.

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, say campaigners who have reviewed the documents.

Some of the charges fell under a section of the kingdom's sweeping cyber crime law, which carries prison sentences of up to five years.

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.