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Saudi Arabia temporarily releases three detained women activists

Rokaya al-Muhareb, Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan were arrested last year as part of a crackdown on dissent
Some of the women reportedly wept and consoled each other during the hearing (File pic - Reuters)

Saudi Arabia has temporarily released from jail three women activists, out of a total of eleven who are on trial, following a court hearing on Wednesday.

Rokaya al-Muhareb, Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan were originally arrested last year as part of a crackdown on dissent within the kingdom.

Relatives and a human rights organisation said the eight other activists on trial would be freed on Sunday.

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"The court indicated that the temporary release was decided after it studied their requests submitted during the trial sessions," the state news agency SPA said.

It said the court would continue to look into their cases and that the release was conditional on their future attendance at their trials until a final decision is reached.

"News of the release of Dr Rokaya Mohareb and activists Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan," human rights organisations ALQST said on Twitter.

Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul, whose trial along with other women activists has drawn global outcry, was not mentioned among those released on Thursday.

'Torturer in court'

Hathloul was one of 11 women who appeared before a panel of three judges on Wednesday on charges that include contacting international media and human rights groups, the AFP news agency reported.

The court session was the second hearing in the high-profile trial, which foreign reporters and diplomats are not allowed to attend.

Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that a covert Saudi death squad that Middle East Eye exposed in October had been involved in the detention and abuse of the activists who were detained last spring and summer.

The detained women had spoken out during the proceedings about the torture and abuse to which they said they were subjected to during their incarceration, according to two unnamed sources with access to the trial who spoke to the AFP news agency.

Houthlol was reportedly accompanied at hearings in Riyadh's criminal court by her alleged torturer, Hathloul's sister Alia said.

"Among state security men who came to interrogate her yesterday and the day before, is a man who tortured her. How can Loujain feel safe in al-Haer prison, or outside prison, when she sees that state security can be a threat to her life?" Alia wrote on Twitter. 

The activists, including blogger Nafjan and university professor Hatoon al-Fassi, have led years-long campaigns against the kingdom's ban on women driving, only to be arrested last summer just before the landmark decision to lift restrictions on female motorists.

Their detention came as part of a sweeping crackdown that has seen vocal figures, including religious clerics and scholars, put behind bars in a bid to crush any potential opposition.

Some of the women wept and consoled each other during the hearing attended by their family members, as they accused interrogators of subjecting them to electric shocks, flogging and groping in detention, according to the sources who spoke to AFP.

Translation: Even women with grandchildren were not spared the sexual harassment (they said that themselves). They spoke with confidence, in between occasional tears. Most of them were too pale, it was difficult identifying them. One of the detainees said that in a secret prison interrogators would come in drunk in the middle of the night and terrify her.

Despite coming under global pressure to release the activists, Saudi Arabia has denied any allegations of torture.

'Threatening to rape my sister'

The US ally has seen global criticism over its violations of human rights and clampdown on critics mount following the gruesome murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom's embassy in October.  

Loujain's brother, Walid Hathloul, said in an interview with CNN that Saud al-Qahtani, a top adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who was fired over Khashoggi's killing, oversaw his sister's torture.

"The top adviser of the prince was threatening to rape my sister, kill her, cut her body into pieces," Walid said. "He's the one who should be in court today, not my sister."

Qahtani has not appeared in public since his sacking was announced.

The trial is set to resume on 3 April, AFP quoted family members as saying. 

The women, initially accused of harbouring links to foreign intelligence agencies and dubbed as traitors and "agents of embassies" by state media, were first expected to appear before a court set up to handle terrorism-related cases. 

The case was moved from a high-security terrorism tribunal to the Riyadh criminal court at the last minute without explanation, possibly signalling a more lenient handling of the cases after months of lobbying by Western governments.