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Saudi feminist activist, one of many jailed dissidents, appears in court

Noha al-Balawi, women's rights campaigner who criticised growing Saudi ties with Israel, is among dozens of dissidents detained since September
Noha al-Balawi, 24, was arrested last month in the Saudi city of Tabuk (Twitter)

A Saudi Arabian student and activist arrested last month after criticising the kingdom's growing ties with Israel had her first hearing in court on Tuesday.

Noha al-Balawi, 24, was detained on 23 January in the western city of Tabuk months after a video in which she said that only Israel benefited from normalisation went viral on social media. 

'At the moment, what we know about Saudi is that every human rights activist is in jail. Everyone with a profile has been jailed'

- Yasamin Alttahir, Amnesty International

She is the latest activist jailed in a country where rights advocates say all high-profile dissidents are now behind bars.

"At the moment, what we know about Saudi is that every human rights activist is in jail. Everyone with a profile has been jailed," Yasamin Alttahir, Amnesty International's Middle East Media Manager, told Middle East Eye.

Balawi, who is studying at a university in Tabuk, is also an advocate for women's rights, including the right to drive, which Saudi authorities have said would start in June 2018. 

According to Al-Qst, a UK-based rights group, police said Balawi was charged under the kingdom's anti-cybercrime laws and faces up to five years in prison and potentially a fine worth $800,000 as well. 

Her first court hearing was held at a courthouse in Tabuk on Tuesday and was not open to the public, according to Yahya Assiri, founder of Al-Qst.

"No one attended from the public - no lawyer, no foreign diplomats - and that is a violation," Assiri told Middle East Eye on Wednesday. 

'Why these people and why now'

Balawi is one of dozens of activists who have been swept up in recent months in the kingdom, in addition to the detention of princes and tycoons that has received much more media attention.

Two months before the Ritz became a prison, more than 60 Saudi intellectuals, clerics, journalists, poets and academics were arrested. The location of at least half of those detained was unknown to campaigners and lawyers involved in their cases earlier this month. 

Those arrested in September include: 

► prominent clerics Salman al-Awdah, Awad al-Qarni and Ali al-Omari

► human rights advocates Issa al-Hamid and Abdulaziz al-Shubaily 

► academics Abdullah al-Maliki and Mustafa al-Hassan

► writer and entrepreneur Essam Al-Zamil

Last week, Saudi journalist Saleh al-Shehi, who works for Al-Watan newspaper, was sentenced to five years in prison for "insulting the royal court" after he discussed corruption during a TV appearance in January.

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While observers and rights advocates say Saudi has regularly arrested dissidents in the past, with some regularly going in and out of prison, this latest wave is in many ways unprecedented. 

Julia Legner, the regional legal officer for the Gulf at the Alkarama Foundation, said: "Why these people and why now fits into the larger picture of preparation for succession of congregating power in one's hand, trying to eliminate enemies and anyone who could post a threat ideologically, financially, economically or in any other way."

MEE has contacted the Saudi embassy in London for comment.

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