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Trial to start in Saudi Arabia for jailed female activists, relatives and rights groups say

An image from video released shows Loujain al-Hathloul in the United Arab Emirates driving toward the Saudi border before her arrest on Dec. 1, 2014, in Saudi Arabia. (Loujain Al-Hathloul/AP)

ISTANBUL — Several prominent women’s rights activists are to appear in a Saudi court Wednesday, nearly a year after they were arrested on charges of undermining national security, according to human rights groups and a relative of one detainee.

Some of the women have said they were tortured while in custody, including with beatings and electric shocks, according to relatives and rights groups, and are headed to court despite complaints they have not been given access to lawyers.  

They include Loujain al-Hathloul, a leading activist in the campaign to lift a female driving ban in Saudi Arabia. During a call with her family last week, Hathloul said she had been notified by authorities that her first trial session would be held Wednesday in a specialized criminal court used to try terrorism cases, said her sister, Alia al-Hathloul.   

 Loujain had not been notified of the charges in the indictment or been given access to a lawyer, her sister said in a text message. Amnesty International and Saudi human rights activists said they had confirmed the names of at least three other women who were told to appear in the Riyadh court. A Saudi government media office did not immediately respond to queries about the hearing. 

Saudi prosecutors announced this month that the activists were being referred to trial after the completion of an investigation.      

Hathloul was among a group of roughly a dozen women’s rights activists held by the authorities since May and accused of having illegal contacts with unspecified foreign entities.

Also due in court Wednesday, according to Amnesty and other people briefed on the cases, are Eman al-Nafjan, who wrote a widely read feminist blog before her arrest; Aziza al-Yousef, a retired professor and veteran of the Saudi women’s rights movement; and Amal al-Harbi, who advocated for political prisoners, including her husband, Fowzan al-Harbi, a jailed human rights activist.

The roundup of female activists was part of a broader campaign of arrests spearheaded by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the past two years, moves that analysts said were part of his effort to consolidate power.  

Those detained included rivals in the royal family, prominent business executives, clerics and political activists. The crackdown drew greater international scrutiny in October after Saudi agents traveled to Istanbul and killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the crown prince and a contributing columnist to The Washington Post.

The CIA concluded with medium to high confidence that Mohammed had ordered Khashoggi’s killing. The Saudi government denied that the crown prince was responsible and said it was prosecuting 11 Saudi officials accused of carrying out the killing.  

The Trump administration has avoided publicly criticizing the Saudi government over the Khashoggi killing or the detentions of the women’s rights activists. On Tuesday, a State Department spokesman, Robert Palladino, started his briefing by condemning as “barbaric” Iran’s reported sentencing of a female human rights lawyer, Nasrin Soteudeh, to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes.

When asked why the United States had not issued an equally strong public condemnation after the detentions of Saudi women’s rights activists — including Samar Badawi, who received a State Department citation for courage in 2012 — Palladino said the United States was speaking “frankly” with allies. “We choose different ways” to promote human rights values, he said.

Hathloul’s family said she was forced to sign a request for a royal pardon — suggesting perhaps that the Saudi leadership was looking for a face-saving way to release her and the other women. 

 But human rights groups have warned that the women and other detained Saudis were still very much in peril. “Saudi women’s rights activist @LoujainHathloul is scheduled to appear before a specialized criminal court tomorrow,” Amnesty International said in a tweet Tuesday.   “We fear she will be charged & tried on terrorism-related charges for peaceful human rights work.”

John Hudson contributed to this report.

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