Saudi Women's Rights Activists, Allegedly Tortured, to Stand Trial

Women accused of vague national security violations, with some of those detained allegedly subjected to caning, electrocution and sexual assault

File photo: Saudi women wait in line in the 'women section' at of a fast food resturant in the 'Faysalia' mall in Riyadh City, on September 26, 2011.
AFP PHOTO/FAYEZ NURELDINE

Prosecutors in Saudi Arabia have referred detained women's rights activists to trial, saying those charged "enjoy all rights preserved by the laws in the kingdom" after they were reportedly tortured in custody.

Prosecutors issued the statement late Friday, referring to their earlier June statement that marked the activists' arrest just before Saudi Arabia granted women the right to drive.

Prosecutors alleged those arrested had the "aim to undermine the kingdom's security, stability and national unity."

Several people with knowledge of their arrest have told The Associated Press that some of the women detained have been subjected to caning, electrocution and sexual assault. All spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal and to protect personal details about the detainees.

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The Saudi government did not respond to questions about the women's cases early Saturday.

However, the London-based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, owned by a Saudi media group long associated with the Al Saud royal family, published a story Saturday quoting a deputy prosecutor denying those detained had been tortured.

The newspaper quoted deputy prosecutor Shalaan bin Rajih al-Shalaan as saying the detained face charges over cooperating with those "hostile to the kingdom" and for allegedly recruiting "persons in a sensitive government entity to obtain information and official documents." He did not elaborate, nor did he offer evidence to support the charges.

The women, who include activists in their 20s as well as mothers, grandmothers and retired professors, have been accused of vague national security violations in connection with their human rights work.

Canadian criticism of the arrests saw Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties to Ottawa.

Human rights groups have criticized the arrests, which come amid a series of crackdowns led by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the son of King Salman.

"The Saudi prosecution is bringing charges against the women's rights activists instead of releasing them unconditionally," said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The Saudi authorities have done nothing to investigate serious allegations of torture, and now, it's the women's rights activists, not any torturers, who face criminal charges and trials."

The kingdom also faces widespread international criticism over the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October, allegedly by members of Prince Mohammed's entourage, as well as over its years-long war in Yemen.