Jailed Saudi women's rights activists given rare court appearance


FILE PHOTO: Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul is seen in this undated handout picture. Marieke Wijntjes/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Four jailed Saudi women's rights activists were given a rare appearance in court on Wednesday, the family of one of them said, as the kingdom's human rights record faces new scrutiny following the election defeat of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Loujain al-Hathloul, 31, looked weak, her body shaking uncontrollably and her voice faint, her sister Lina told Reuters, adding that her parents had sat next to her in court. It was her first appearance since March last year.

The judge announced he was transferring the case from regular criminal court to a terrorism court, Lina al-Hathloul said. Human Rights Watch denounced that decision as an attempt to escalate the case.

Another sister, Alia al-Hathloul, tweeted that three other prominent women's rights activists - Nassima Al-Sadah, Samar Badawi and Nouf Abdelaziz - had also appeared. Further details about their appearances were not immediately available.

The Saudi government's media office did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

The four women were among more than a dozen activists rounded up in 2018, the year Saudi Arabia lifted a long-standing ban on women driving but accompanied that move with a crackdown on activists who had campaigned against the ban.

Officials have said the arrests of women activists were made on suspicion of harming Saudi interests and offering support to hostile elements abroad. Few charges have been made public, but those against Hathloul include communicating with foreign journalists, attempting to apply for a job at the United Nations and attending digital privacy training, her family has said.

Rights groups say at least three of the women, including Hathloul, were held in solitary confinement for months and subjected to abuse including electric shocks, flogging and sexual assault. Saudi officials have denied torture allegations.

Hathloul went on hunger strike last month to protest against the conditions of her detention. Her family said she was forced to abandon the hunger strike after two weeks because her jailers were waking her every two hours.

"How credible is it that after more than a year of being judged in the criminal court, the judge now says he has a lack of jurisdiction and transferred her to the terrorism court?" sister Lina al-Hathloul told Reuters.

Adam Coogle, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch, called the transfer of the case to terrorism court "yet another effort to stigmatize Hathloul and her activities, but no one should be fooled about what this case is really about."

SCRUTINY AFTER TRUMP

Saudi Arabia faces greater scrutiny over its human rights record following the Nov. 3 election defeat of Trump, a strong supporter of de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

President-elect Joe Biden has described Saudi Arabia as a "pariah" for its human rights record and said he will take a firmer line. Last week, the kingdom hosted a virtual G20 leaders summit, one of Trump's final appearances in world diplomacy.

Dozens of western lawmakers, leading human rights groups and jailed activists' families condemned the summit.

In a letter to the Saudi ambassador to Washington on Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators called on Saudi Arabia to release the women's rights activists.

Under the crown prince, Riyadh has enacted reforms of strict social codes, chipping away at a system of "guardianship" that requires women to obtain a male relative's permission to travel abroad, work outside the home or take important decisions.

Social reforms have been accompanied by a hard line on political dissent, and the murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khasshoggi in the Saudi diplomatic mission in Istanbul wrecked Prince Mohammed's international reputation.

In an interview earlier this month, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Britain raised the prospect of clemency for jailed women activists. Asked by Reuters on Saturday whether Saudi Arabia was considering clemency, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said this was a "non-issue" as the women were still on trial.

(Reporting by Raya Jalabi; Editing by Peter Graff)

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