Saudi women activists appear in court on 'human rights-related' charges

Saudi activists on trial, from left to right: Aziza al-Yousef, Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan

(CNN)The trial of 11 female Saudi activists resumed in Riyadh on Wednesday, in a case that has been criticized by rights groups and drawn international condemnation.

Saudi Arabia has not yet made the charges public, but after the women's last hearings on March 13, Human Rights Watch reported that the charges appeared "almost entirely related to their human rights activities."
Some of the women were charged with promoting women's rights and calling for the end of Saudi Arabia's restrictive male guardianship system, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The charges also include contact with international organizations, foreign media and other activists, the rights groups said.
The women also face charges under article six of the kingdom's cybercrime law, according to rights groups, which carry a maximum penalty of five years in jail.
    One of the women, the prominent rights campaigner Loujain al-Hathloul, requested bail and extra time to respond to the charges, according to her brother Walid al-Hathloul, who told CNN that her charges were related to her rights activism, including contacting journalists, diplomats and other activists. Walid al-Hathloul said a judge is set to decide on whether to grant his sister's requests on Thursday afternoon.
    Saudi authorities did not respond to CNN's request for information about the proceedings Wednesday. Western diplomats and journalists were barred from the hearing, Reuters reported.
    Many of the women have been in jail since May 2018, weeks before the kingdom's notorious ban on female drivers was lifted.
    Hathloul was arrested in March of last year as she was driving down a highway in the United Arab Emirates, where she had been living.
    She was then sent to Saudi Arabia and detained. The 29-year-old was released days later, only to be arrested again a few weeks later in a sweep that targeted 10 women's right-to-drive activists. Several detainees were later released, but other women's rights defenders were detained in the weeks that followed the initial arrests.
    Another detained activist, Aziza al-Yousef, who is over 70, was one of the country's first activists campaigning for the right to drive and signed a petition in recent years calling for an end to the guardianship laws that grant men control over their female family members.
    Campaigner Aziza al-Yousef was part of the May 2018 arrest sweep and remains in prison.
    Eman al-Nafjan, a third detainee, is a well-known blogger who drove in Riyadh in 2013 as part of a protest that attracted international attention.
    Also facing trial are Amal al-Harbi, Ruqayyah al-Mharib, Nouf Abdulaziz, Maya'a al-Zahrani, Shadan al-Anezi, Abir Namankani, Hatoon al-Fassi and another unidentified female activist.
    The women's cases were initially treated as treated as security-related. The activists swept up in May 2018 were first accused of "suspicious contact with foreign entities" and reportedly faced terror charges.
    According to members of Hathloul's family, she was initially scheduled to appear in a terror court in Riyadh. But on the eve of the first hearing, her case was moved to a criminal court.
    The women's arrests drew international condemnation, including at the United Nations Human Rights Council, where a statement signed by 36 countries named the activists and called for their release. It was the first collective rebuke of the kingdom at the forum.
    In January, Walid al-Hathloul detailed in a CNN opinion piece the abuse allegedly endured by his sister in prison. During a visit to the prison by her parents, she told them that she was regularly whipped, beaten, electrocuted and sexually harassed in a basement she called the "palace of terror."
    Saudi activists and Human Rights Watch have also alleged that she and other female detainees have been tortured and sexually harassed in prison. Saud al-Qahtani, a former adviser to the Crown Prince, was linked to the alleged torture.
      Saudi authorities did not respond to CNN's request for comment on the torture allegations. Riyadh previously denied allegations of torture in a statement to CNN following an initial Human Rights Watch report alleging the abuse in November.
      "The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's judiciary system does not condone, promote, or allow the use of torture. Anyone, whether male or female, being investigated is going through the standard judiciary process led by the public prosecution while being held for questioning, which does not in any way rely on torture, either physical, sexual, or psychological," a Saudi official told CNN in November.