April 3, 2019 / 9:07 AM / 6 months ago

Saudi women activists back in court as West watches

RIYADH (Reuters) - Nearly a dozen prominent Saudi women activists returned to court on Wednesday to face charges related to contacts with foreign journalists, diplomats and human rights groups, in a case that has intensified Western criticism of a major Mideast ally.

FILE PHOTO - Demonstrators from Amnesty International stage the protest on International Women's day to urge Saudi authorities to release jailed women's rights activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Paris, France, March 8, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Three of the women - blogger Eman al-Nafjan, academic Aziza al-Yousef and conservative preacher Ruqayya al-Mohareb - were temporarily released last week on condition they attend future hearings.

They were seen entering Riyadh’s criminal courthouse on Wednesday, and sources familiar with the proceedings told Reuters the three-judge panel adjourned their hearings until after the holy month of Ramadan, which ends in early June.

The court had been expected to rule on release requests for the other women, but the sources said no decision was announced and their next hearing was set for April 17. The reason for the separate dates was unclear.

In court on Wednesday, the public prosecutor replied to defenses the women had presented previously, the sources said.

Few charges have been made public, but the brother of defendant Loujain al-Hathloul has said those against her include communicating with journalists, applying for a job at the United Nations, and attending digital privacy training.

Western diplomats and media, including Reuters, have been denied entry to the trial, which has drawn attention to a rights record already in the spotlight after the murder last year of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.

Three dozen countries, including all 28 EU members, Canada and Australia, have called on Riyadh to free the activists. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised the issue during recent visits.

WESTERN SCRUTINY

The temporary releases and the case’s transfer from a high-security terrorism court at the last minute without explanation may signal a more lenient handling after months of lobbying by Western governments.

Yet it remains to be seen if Riyadh will bend to international pressure or pursue harsh sentences in a case critics say has revealed the limits of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s promises to modernize Saudi Arabia.

Hathloul’s siblings said on Twitter that the prosecution on Wednesday repeated its denials of the torture allegations made by some defendants during last week’s hearing. Rights groups have documented mistreatment in detention including electric shocks, flogging and sexual assault.

Hathloul’s brother has publicly appealed to members of the U.S. Congress to intervene, and her sister wrote an op-ed in the New York Times detailing the allegations. They both live abroad but say they have been pressured to keep quiet.

“We were silent and the most terrible forms of torture happened,” the sister tweeted on Wednesday. “I will be silent when Loujain is back with us and those who tortured her are put on trial and she is compensated for what happened.”

FILE PHOTO: Demonstrators from Amnesty International stage the protest on International Women's day to urge Saudi authorities to release jailed women's rights activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Paris, France, March 8, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier/File Photo

Most of the women on trial were arrested weeks before a ban on women driving cars in the conservative kingdom was lifted last June.

At least five men were detained in the same sweep, though none of them are currently on trial. Rights groups say two of them have been released, but the status of the others is unclear.

Dozens of other activists, intellectuals and clerics have been arrested separately in the past two years in an apparent bid to stamp out opposition to the government.

Reporting by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Andrew Cawthorne and Tom Brown

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