AT LEAST 10 Saudi female activists were arrested beginning last May, just as the regime was preparing to lift a ban on women driving that they had long campaigned against. Most or all of them were initially held incommunicado in a secret prison, where they were subjected to severe torture, including beatings, electric shocks and sexual abuse, according to their families and human rights groups. One was so traumatized that she reportedly attempted suicide; another could barely stand when she finally met her family. Even after they were transferred to conventional prisons, the women were denied legal representation and were not informed of the charges against them — while state media slandered them as traitors.
In this dismal context, it might be counted as progress that 10 women were brought to a court in Riyadh on Wednesday and formally charged. Details were hard to obtain, because the court refused to admit Western diplomats and journalists. But the activists were processed by a regular criminal court, rather than the special court for terrorism they were first assigned to; and at least some were reportedly charged with cybercrimes, rather than the more serious allegations of undermining state security that had previously been reported.
It may be that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose security apparatus was behind the arrests and torture, is responding to international pressure. All 28 European Union governments joined a statement last week by the U.N. Human Rights Council rebuking Saudi Arabia for “arbitrary detentions” and calling for the women’s release. One of the most prominent of the activists, Loujain al-Hathloul, is said to have been induced to request a pardon, which may mean that the regime is at least contemplating her release.
For now, however, the women remain unjustly imprisoned, and those who tortured them have gone unpunished. For that reason, Western governments must keep up the pressure on a regime that persisted in a pattern of criminal behavior that also includes the deliberate bombing of civilians in Yemen and the murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Particularly disturbing are the reports that one official who played a large role in the Khashoggi murder, as well as the persecution of the women, Saud al-Qahtani, remains at large. This close aide to Mohammed bin Salman is reported to have overseen the torture of Ms. Hathloul and to have personally threatened her with rape and murder. Saudi authorities named him as one of those responsible in the Khashoggi case, and the Trump administration imposed sanctions against him. Yet he is not among those on trial for the Khashoggi murder, and despite reports that he had been fired and banned from traveling, researchers for Human Rights Watch say he has been spotted in the United Arab Emirates and at the Saudi royal court and is still believed to be advising the crown prince.
Saudi authorities rejected the women’s allegations of torture without a serious investigation. Now it is subjecting the victims to a trial on trumped-up charges. If Mohammed bin Salman really intended to modernize Saudi Arabia, he would be embracing the women as allies. That he continues to persecute them tells a different story.