Middle East

Saudi female activists won't face a fair trial, friend fears

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Fellow Saudi women's rights activist Manal al-Sharif says she fears several of her friends won't receive a fair trial in Saudi Arabia.

Rights groups have denounced Saudi Arabia over its decision to put jailed women activists on trial after holding them for nearly a year without charge.

Some of those detained have allegedly faced torture and sexual harassment during interrogation, following their arrest in May last year in a sweeping crackdown on campaigners.

Saudi women walk pior to the 2018 Saudia Ad Diriyah E-Prix Formula E Championship in Riyadh, on December 15, 2018 in Riyadh. (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP)        (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)
Women in Saudi Arabia.
AFP

Saudi activist and author Manal al-Sharif said the women have had no access to legal advice during their nine-month detention.

"I don't think there will be any fair trial," she told SBS News.

"They don't have access to legal advice. They do not know what charges have been pressed."

Trials in the ultra-conservative kingdom are often shrouded in secrecy.

Little detail of charges provided

Without providing details of the charges, State news agency SPA reported that Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor is preparing the trials of detainees, identified by watchdog groups as women’s rights activists, after completing its investigations.

The report provided few details but referenced a June 2018 statement which said that nine people - five men and four women - were arrested and held on suspicion of harming the country’s interests and offering support to hostile elements abroad.

Aziza al-Yousef drives a car on a highway in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 2014.
Aziza al-Yousef drives a car on a highway in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 2014.
AAP

At the time, international rights groups reported the detention of at least 11 prominent activists, mostly women who previously campaigned for the right to drive and an end to the kingdom’s male guardianship system.

Some were later released, but activists have said that several of the women were held in solitary confinement for months and faced torture and sexual harassment.

Saudi officials deny claims of mistreatment of detainees

A Saudi official has said the allegations of mistreatment and torture of the female detainees were “false ... and have no connection to the truth”.

Dozens of other activists, intellectuals and clerics have been arrested separately in an apparent bid to stamp out opposition to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has consolidated power including with a sweeping anti-corruption campaign.

The women facing trial include Aziza al-Yousef, a retired professor at Riyadh's King Saud University.

Another is Loujain al-Hathloul, who was held for more than 70 days in 2014 for attempting to drive from neighbouring United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia.

Manal al-Sharif said she has been in touch with Loujain's family who had witnessed the aftermath of her torture and abuse during her time in detention.

"When her husband saw her they saw places in her head, the hair is falling, she's lost so much weight. Loujain - she couldn't hold a spoon, she couldn't walk and her family when they were asking her said: 'no, no no - it's just the AC [air conditioner]'. She couldn't even tell them."

'Women targeted after building shelter'

Manal al-Sharif said she campaigned over the last seven years with all of the women facing trial to end the guardianship system and overturn the ban on women driving.

She said the women were targeted after they built a women's shelter for domestic violence survivors.

"And those women are professors, mothers, are grandmothers. They are not criminals, they have denied the crimes the government has accused them of.

"They were trying to build a shelter for the women who are trying to run away from domestic violence because the government runs shelters."

Rights groups denounce Saudi officials

Amnesty International called Friday's announcement a "shocking sign of the kingdom's escalating crackdown on activists" and demanded "the immediate release of prisoners of conscience."

Human Rights Watch also denounced the actions of Saudi officials.

"The Saudi authorities have done nothing to investigate serious allegations of torture," said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

"Now, it's the women's rights activists, not any torturers, who face criminal charges and trials."

The prosecutor did not specify the charges nor give a date for their trial.

But the announcement sparked speculation that the activists could be released under the cover of a judicial process, after the crackdown prompted scathing criticism against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

"There is a legal process moving forward and I think it will end well," Ali Shihabi, founder of pro-Saudi government think tank Arabia Foundation, said on Twitter.

"Let us see the end result and then judge, not jump to conclusions."

Additional reporting: agencies

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