By Stephen Kalin
RIYADH (Reuters) – Several Saudi women activists were to stand trial on Thursday, said people familiar with the proceedings, after a two-month hiatus in a case that has drawn international scrutiny of the kingdom’s human rights record.
Among those appearing at the courthouse in Riyadh were academic Aziza al-Yousef, who is in her 60s, and conservative preacher Ruqayya al-Mohareb, the sources said. Blogger Eman al-Nafjan was also expected to be present.
The three are part of a group of around a dozen women arrested in the weeks before and after a ban on women driving cars in the conservative kingdom was lifted in June 2018.
Few charges have been made public but those against at least some of them are related to contacts with foreign journalists, diplomats and human rights groups.
The public prosecutor said last year that they were suspected of harming Saudi interests and offering support to hostile elements abroad.
The women’s arrests – and the torture alleged by some of them, which Saudi authorities deny – has heightened Western criticism of a pivotal Middle East ally following last year’s murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.
They appear to be part of a broader crackdown on dissent that has netted scores of other activists, intellectuals and clerics over the past two years even as Saudi Arabia eases some social restrictions and seeks to reform its economy.
Yousef, Nafjan and Mohareb were granted temporary release in March conditional on attending future court sessions. Four more were later released on similar terms. The rest of the women remain in prison.
It was unclear if others who had appeared in previous sessions, including rights campaigner Loujain al-Hathloul and university professor Hatoon al-Fassi, would also have a new hearing.
Foreign diplomats and reporters are barred from entering the courtroom, and the government communications office did not reply this week to a request for comment about the case.
Local media has branded some of the women as traitors and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said they worked for Qatari and Iranian intelligence.
Activists and diplomats have speculated that their arrests may have been meant as a message to activists not to push demands out of sync with the government’s own agenda.
The CIA and some Western countries believe the crown prince ordered the killing of Khashoggi, a royal insider turned critic who wrote for the Washington Post. Saudi officials deny that.
The U.N. executions investigator said on Wednesday that leaders attending the G20 summit in Japan this weekend should press Riyadh to take “full responsibility” for what she called the state murder of Khashoggi.
(Reporting By Stephen Kalin; editing by John Stonestreet)