RIYADH: A group of Saudi women accused of working with entities hostile to the Kingdom went on trial on Wednesday for the first time since they were arrested more than nine months ago.
Loujain Al-Hathloul, Aziza Al-Yousef, Eman Al-Nafjan and Hatoon Al-Fassi were among 10 women to appear before the Criminal Court in the capital, Riyadh, where charges were presented against them, court president Ibrahim Al-Sayari said.
He was speaking to reporters and more than a dozen diplomats from the United States and Europe. Al-Sayari cited privacy concerns as the reason for not making the trial public.
The women were among more than a dozen prominent activists, including several men, arrested in the weeks before a ban on women driving cars in the Kingdom was lifted last June. A few were previously released without trial.
At the time of the arrests, the public prosecutor said five men and four women had been detained on suspicion of harming Saudi interests and offering support to hostile elements abroad. After the arrests, some local media outlets labelled the accused as traitors and “agents of embassies.” Arab News criticized such reporting as unfair and unprofessional, and argued that the accused should be treated as innocent unless proved guilty.
The accused women generated a high level of publicity when they were arrested, and the opening of the trial also attracted considerable attention from international media and human right organizations.
Some observers raised concerns that the court proceedings may not be fair, and that the judge may simply impose the punishment recommended by the public prosecutor without conducting a full trial.
That is not how the Saudi justice system operates, the political analyst Hamdan Al-Shehri told Arab News. If the accused women are indeed found guilty, the sentence could be more harsh or more lenient than the prosecutor’s recommendation, depending on what the judge hears during the trial.
“It depends on the witnesses, and incontrovertible evidence,” Al-Shehri said.
In addition, men and women who broke the law were dealt with equally, Al-Shehri said; the sentence would be the same, regardless of the sex of the person found guilty. “They will be allowed to defend themselves through their lawyers. Saudi law makes this provision,” he said.