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Saudi Arabia women's rights activists to face trial, prosecutors say

The arrests were among the first incidents to cast a shadow over Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's attempts to position himself as a reformer.
Image: FILE PHOTO: Women walk past a poster of Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud during Janadriyah Cultural Festival on the outskirts of Riyadh
Women walk past a poster of Saudi Arabia's King Salman on the outskirts of Riyadh in February 2018.Faisal Nasser / Reuters

Women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia who have been detained for nearly a year will be put on trial, the country's public prosecutor said late Friday, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman faces growing scrutiny over his leadership.

The women are accused of coordinating activities that "aim to undermine the Kingdom's security, stability, and national unity," the prosecutor said in a statement released by the Saudi press agency.

The statement did not name those accused in the case or list specific charges but referred to an earlier release last year that marked the arrests.

The prosecutor stated the women "enjoy all rights preserved by the laws in the Kingdom."

An investigation conducted by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International last year claimed that Saudi authorities tortured and sexually assaulted the detainees.

“The Saudi prosecution is bringing charges against the women’s rights activists instead of releasing them unconditionally,” said the group's deputy Middle East director Michael Page. “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 women, ranging in age from their 20s to 70s, were arrested in May 2018. State-linked media at the time reported they were accused of offering financial support to "overseas enemies." One activist told NBC News following their arrests that the accusations were a "smear campaign" to condemn the women.

Some of the women were released within days of their arrest, but at least 10 women remain in custody including Loujain al-Hathloul, whose sister appealed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in January to raise the issue with officials in Riyadh.

The arrests came at the same time as a major shift in the conservative kingdom's public approach to women.

Bin Salman had promised to implement more moderate policies, with the headline-grabbing move to lift the ban on women driving seen as evidence of his reformist credentials.

The arrests of the activists were among the first incidents to cast a shadow over bin Salman's attempts to position himself as a proponent of a more moderate form of Islam.

He has since faced fierce criticism for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October. Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post and critic of bin Salman, was killed by a team sent from Riyadh after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. His body has not been found.

Earlier this year, Sen. Lindsey Graham said relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia cannot progress until bin Salman is "dealt with."

President Donald Trump referred to efforts to conceal the killing as the "worst cover-up ever" after having downplayed the prince's involvement.

In November, the U.S. Treasury slapped sanctions on 17 Saudi officials in response to the killing.

Saudi involvement in Yemen's civil war has also prompted international outcry and a rebuke for the Trump administration from Congress.

Earlier this week White House adviser Jared Kushner met with bin Salman to discuss a peace plan for the region and "economic investment."