The arrested include Loujain al-Hathloul, who fought for the right of women to drive and the end of male protection. In recent weeks fierce social media campaigns against the defendants. The protection of a lawyer in the courtroom is denied. Families report violence and abuse in prison.
Riyadh (AsiaNews / Agencies) – Almost one year after their arrest, the trial of 10 women for their struggle for human rights and greater civil liberties opened in Saudi Arabia yesterday. The defendants include the 29 year old Loujain al-Hathloul, a leading figure in the struggle for the right to drive and in the fight against male guardianship, in prison since May last year.
On the eve of the trial in the country there was a violent media campaign (pro-government) and on social networks against el-Hathloul and other activists. Many slammed the activists as "betrayers" of the values of the kingdom, for having had "contact" with "foreign parties".
According to reports from Alqst, a Saudi human rights organization based in the United Kingdom, the defendants are accused under regulations concerning cyber crimes. In recent weeks, many NGOs and activists around the world have called for their release.
On 8 March last 36 nations at the UN Human Rights Council criticized Riyadh for human rights violations, with a particular reference to incarcerated women. An absolute first which shows a growing pressure towards the the so-called reforms promoted by 33-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as part of his Vision 2030 programme.
The arrests of senior officials and business people last year, the crackdown on activists and critical voices, the war in Yemen with its civilian victims, children included, and the assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi cast a dark shadow on Saudi Arabia.
Along with Loujain al-Hathloul, other prominent Saudi activist figures have appeared in the courtroom yesterday including Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Hatoon al-Fassi. Local sources told Alqst that the Riyadh Criminal Court has opened three different proceedings; women face up to five years in prison and have so far been unable to benefit from the defense of a lawyer. Most of the charges are based on "alleged confessions" related to "contacts" between women "and pro human rights organizations".
Close relatives were able to attend the hearing; on the other hand, access to foreign and diplomatic journalists was prevented. The Gulf Center for Human Rights warns that women will not benefit from a fair trial and expresses "deep concern" about their state of health. Some of them, in fact, would have been tortured in these months of preventive detention with lashings, electroshock and sexual abuse.