Eleven Saudi Arabian women’s rights activists appeared in a Riyadh court this week, the latest development in an ongoing case that has drawn condemnation around the globe.
Reporters were not allowed into the courtroom for the activists’ appearance, but according to the AP, sources said that at least some of the women told the three-judge panel about new abuses they had suffered in custody: being caned on their backs and thighs, touched and groped, forced to break their fasts during Ramadan, and threatened with rape and death. Saudi Arabia has denied allegations of abuse.
The women were arrested as part of a sweep that began in May of last year. Among them are the activist Loujain al-Hathloul, the university professor Hatoon al-Fassi, and the blogger Eman Al Nafjan, all of whom had spoken out against Saudi Arabia’s notorious driving ban, which was lifted weeks after their arrests. They had also called for an end to the country’s guardianship system, which requires women to obtain a designated man’s permission before doing things like getting married or obtaining a passport.
The Saudi Arabian public prosecutor’s office has said that the women were involved in “coordinated activity to undermine the security, stability, and social peace of the kingdom.” Human Rights Watch, however, says that “the charges [against the women] appear entirely related to their human rights activities.” At least two of the women, the organization says, have been accused of talking to foreign journalists, diplomats, and international human rights organizations about the plight of women in Saudi Arabia.
Previous reports from advocacy groups like Amnesty International revealed that the women had been tortured by electric shocks and flogging, and forced to kiss while their interrogators watched. One detainee was reportedly told, falsely, that her family had died.
Three dozen countries have publicly called for the activists to be released. Last week, nine Democratic U.S. senators, among them Dianne Feinstein and Elizabeth Warren, wrote an open letter to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, urging “the immediate and unconditional release of a number of prisoners held by your government, many of them on dubious charges related to their activism.”
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has tried to soften its public image on the world stage, but a number of high-profile incidents — like the detainment of the women’s rights activists and the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — have revealed that it’s business as usual in the kingdom.
The eleven activists are due back in court next week for what could be the last hearing of the trial. A judge is expected to decide later this week whether to temporarily release some of the women from prison.
Read more at the Associated Press.