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Saudi court postpones hearing for women activists just days after new arrests

The activists, some of whom say they were tortured, face charges including contact with foreign media and diplomats
Riyadh has faced pressure from Western governments to release the women, most of whom were detained last summer (Reuters)

A Saudi court has postponed on Wednesday a fourth hearing in the trial of several women rights activists, in a case that has intensified Western criticism of Saudi Arabia following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

A court official informed some of the women's relatives that the session would not take place, citing the judge's "private reasons". He could not provide a new date.

The eleven activists had been due back in court just days after campaigners reported a new crackdown on their supporters.

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The 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 had been expected to respond to the defence case, submitted by the women earlier this month.

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

The women had been 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.

Pressured by people close to the Saudi state

In an apparent crackdown on the women's supporters earlier this month, Saudi authorities 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, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he had pressed Saudi Arabia to release the US citizens.

The latest arrests follow the brutal murder of Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October, which sparked unprecedented international scrutiny of the kingdom's human rights record.

Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post and Middle East Eye, had written articles criticising Saudi policies.

Hathloul'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.

Flogging and groping

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

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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 the AFP news agency.

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

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