Amnesty condemns 'bogus' charges leveled at Saudi women activists during 'show trial'
Saudi women activists face "bogus" charges including contacting foreign media, human rights campaigners and international organisations, Amnesty International said on Thursday.
The "show trial" of at least 10 women opened in Riyadh's criminal court on Wednesday, when the women were finally made aware of the charges held against them despite having been detained for almost a year previous to the trial.
Many of the women involved had campaigned for women's right to drive in Saudi Arabia for years previous to their arrests.
The women, including prominent activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Youssef and Eman al-Nafjan, were detained in May last year during a sweeping crackdown on activists just a month time before Saudi Arabia ended its longstanding ban on women driving.
Amnesty said 11 women appeared before the court, all charged with promoting women's rights and calling for an end to the ultra-conservative kingdom's male guardianship system, under which women's lives are subject to near-total control from male relatives.
At the time of their arrest, the activists were accused by some government officials of undermining national security and aiding enemies of the state, while state-backed media branded them as traitors and "agents of embassies".
"The women were also charged with contacting international organisations, foreign media and other activists, including... Amnesty International," the rights group said, calling the charges "bogus".
Walid al-Hathloul, brother of Loujain, corroborated Amnesty's claims at a Washington press conference on Thursday, according to Wall Street Journal correspondent Summer Said.
Hathloul said his sister had been charged with applying for a job at the United Nations in Geneva and communicating with 15 foreign journalists.
He also claimed that Saud al-Qahtani, the "right-hand man" of Saudi crown prince and de-facto ruler Mohammad bin Salman who was implicated in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year, had "threatened to kill her, cut her body into pieces and throw the parts in sewage".
The activists were charged under the kingdom's sweeping cyber crime law, which carries prison sentences of up to ten years, based on their alleged contact with so-called "hostile entities", such as human rights organisations, according to London-based rights group ALQST.
"The charges against the activists are the latest example of the Saudi authorities abusing legislation and the justice system to silence peaceful activists and deter them from working on the human rights situation in the country," said Samah Hamid, Amnesty's Middle East campaigns director.
"This trial is yet another stain on the Saudi authorities' appalling human rights record, and shows how empty the government's claims of reform really are."
The women would have access to independent lawyers for the trial, a court official told AFP.
Family members have claimed that the activists have been denied access to lawyers for the entire stretch of their detention.
The official did not specify a date for the next court hearing.