Saudi court resumes high-profile trial of women activists

Saudi activist and campaigner Aziza al-Yousef (pictured September 2016) was granted temporary release in late March 2019, while Saudi Arabia released another four of the 11 detained women activists (AFP Photo/FAYEZ NURELDINE)

Riyadh (AFP) - Eleven Saudi women's rights activists were due back in court Wednesday in a trial that has drawn international criticism, just days after campaigners reported a new crackdown on their supporters.

The 11 activists, among them Loujain al-Hathloul who has accused her interrogators of sexual abuse and torture during nearly a year in custody, face charges that include contact with foreign media, diplomats and human rights groups.

A panel of three judges at the Riyadh criminal court was expected to respond to the defence case, submitted by the women earlier this month.

Western diplomats and media have been barred from attending the high-profile trial.

The women are expected to attend separate court hearings, according to people with access to the trial.

Riyadh has faced pressure from Western governments to release the women, most of whom were detained last summer in a wide-ranging crackdown against activists just before the historic lifting of a decades-long ban on female motorists.

Three of them -- activist Aziza al-Yousef, blogger Eman al-Nafjan and preacher Rokaya al-Mohareb –- have been granted bail.

In an apparent crackdown on the women's supporters earlier this month, Saudi authories arrested at least nine writers and academics, including two US-Saudi dual nationals.

Aziza's son, Salah al-Haidar, is among the two Americans detained.

Last Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he had pressed Saudi Arabia –- a close ally of President Donald Trump's administration -- to release the US citizens.

The crackdown is the first since the brutal murder of prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October, which sparked unprecedented international scrutiny of the kingdom's human rights record.

Loujain's siblings, based overseas, have said they are being pressured by people close to the Saudi state to stay silent over her treatment in detention.

People close to the Saudi establishment have warned that public criticism by family members could prolong their detention.

At one emotionally charged court hearing, some women broke down as they accused interrogators of subjecting them to electric shocks, flogging and groping in detention, two people with access to the trial told AFP.

A Saudi prosecutor roundly rejected the accusation, witnesses said, reiterating the government's stance.