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Saudi Arabia temporarily releases 3 women arrested in crackdown on activists

Demonstrators outside the Saudi Embassy in Paris on March 8 call for Saudi Arabia to release women's rights activists.
Demonstrators outside the Saudi Embassy in Paris on March 8 call for Saudi Arabia to release women's rights activists. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

ISTANBUL — Saudi Arabia on Thursday provisionally released three women who are standing trial on charges largely related to their human rights activism, the state news agency reported.

Those released included Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan, veteran leaders in the Saudi feminist movement, according to two people briefed on the cases. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

Yousef and Nafjan are among 11 women on trial in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, on charges that include communicating with foreign journalists and overseas human rights groups. The third woman released Thursday was Rokaya al-Mohareb, a professor and conservative Muslim activist. Her inclusion in the trial had puzzled some Saudi feminists who said Mohareb was not active in the women’s rights movement.    

Saudi authorities began arresting the activists in May. The kingdom’s prosecution of the women, as well as allegations that many of them were tortured while in custody, had invited harsh international scrutiny of Saudi Arabia’s treatment of activists and dissidents under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.  

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Many of the women had campaigned for the lifting of a ban on women driving and for the end of guardianship laws that require Saudi women to obtain the permission of a male relative to travel or work. They had also advocated for domestic abuse survivors.  

After the arrests, Saudi officials accused the women of grave crimes, including colluding with foreign governments hostile to Saudi Arabia. Government-friendly news outlets labeled the women “traitors.” 

 But when prosecutors produced indictments against the women, the charges were “almost entirely” related to activism, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.  

Prosecutors “accuse the women of sharing information about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia with journalists based in Saudi Arabia, diplomats, and international human rights organizations,” the group said, adding that such contacts had been deemed “a criminal offense.”   

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The decision to release some of the women came a day after the defendants appeared in a court in Riyadh during a second hearing in their case and petitioned for their temporary release. In emotional testimony, several detailed abuse at the hands of Saudi authorities, according to Alia al-Hathloul, a sister of Loujain al-Hathloul, one of the detainees. 

Alia al-Hathloul, writing on Twitter, said the women testified that they had been sexually harassed, given electric shocks and whipped while in custody. Some cried as they spoke, she wrote. Her sister was not among those released Thursday, she said.   

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