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Saudi women's rights activists stand trial in criminal court

Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Hatoon al-Fassi said to be among those tried in Riyadh
Activists say some of the women, including Loujain Hathloul, pictured, were held in solitary confinement and tortured (AFP)

Several Saudi Arabian women rights activists stood trial on Wednesday for the first time since a group of them were detained last year in a case that has intensified scrutiny of Riyadh's human rights record.

Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Hatoon al-Fassi are among around 10 women appearing before the criminal court in Riyadh, the capital, where charges will be presented against them, court president Ibrahim al-Sayari said.

He was speaking to reporters and diplomats, who were barred from attending the session.

The women are among around a dozen prominent activists who were arrested last May in the weeks before a ban on women driving cars in the conservative kingdom was lifted.

Activists say some of them, including Hathloul, were held in solitary confinement and subjected to mistreatment and torture, including electric shocks, flogging and sexual assault. 

Saudi officials have denied those allegations.

'Agents of embassies'

At the time of the arrests, the public prosecutor said five men and four women were being held on suspicion of harming the country's interests and offering support to hostile elements abroad. 

State-backed media labelled them as traitors and "agents of embassies".

Hathloul's brother tweeted late on Tuesday that the family had been informed that the trial had been moved to the criminal court from the specialised criminal court, which was set up to try terrorism cases but is often used for political offences. 

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It was not clear what was behind the decision, the Reuters news agency reported.

Last week, European countries urged Saudi Arabia to release the detained activists and cooperate with a UN-led probe into the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in the first rebuke of the kingdom at the Human Rights Council.

Khashoggi was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October.

The CIA concluded last autumn that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was behind the murder.

Mohammed bin Salman has denied any knowledge of Khashoggi's murder or its botched cover-up, which Riyadh has described as a "rogue operation".

Message to activists

Other detainees include Nouf Abdelaziz, Mayaa al-Zahrani, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Saada, Shadan al-Onezi, Amal al-Harbi and Mohammed al-Rabia, according to rights groups.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his British counterpart have said they raised the issue with Saudi authorities during recent visits.

Hathloul, who had advocated an end to the driving ban and the kingdom's male guardianship system, was previously detained twice, including for 73 days in 2014 after she attempted to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates.

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Nafjan and Yousef participated in a protest against the driving ban in 2013. 

Yousef also authored a petition, which Nafjan and Hathloul signed, in 2016 seeking to end male guardianship, which requires women to obtain the consent of a male relative for major decisions.

Activists and diplomats have speculated that the arrests may have been aimed at appeasing conservative elements opposed to social reforms pushed by Mohammed bin Salman. 

They may also have been meant as a message to activists not to push demands out of sync with the government's own agenda.

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