Several Saudi women activists detained in a widespread crackdown last year were on Wednesday brought to court in a case that has intensified scrutiny of Riyadh's human rights record.
The case follows the murder of prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October, which prompted revulsion around the world and shook an international charm offensive by the kingdom’s powerful crown prince.
Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Hatoon Al-Fassi are among around 10 prominent women appearing before the Criminal Court in the capital, Riyadh, where charges will be presented against them, court president Ibrahim al Sayari said.
He was speaking to reporters and diplomats, who were barred from attending the session.
According to state news agency SPA, they were being charged with trying to undermine security, stability and national unity.
The women are among about a dozen prominent activists who were arrested last May in the weeks before a ban on women driving cars in the conservative kingdom was lifted.
At the time of the arrests, the public prosecutor said five men and four women were being held on suspicion of harming the country's interests. Reports in state-linked media suggested those being held had offered financial support to "overseas enemies” and had suspicious contacts with foreign entities. A hashtag dubbing them "agents of embassies" with the word "traitor" stamped on their faces also began circulating on social media.
Hathloul's brother tweeted late on Tuesday that the family had been informed that the trial had been moved to the criminal court from the Specialized Criminal Court, which was set up to try terrorism cases but is often used for political offences. It was not clear what was behind the decision.
Her sister penned an op-ed piece in the New York Times in January, asking for U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to interfere on his visit to the kingdom. She accused Pompeo of "apathy" for not including the issue of "brave women activists of Saudi Arabia being held in the kingdom’s prisons for seeking rights and dignity" on his agenda.
Pompeo and his British counterpart have said they raised the issue with Saudi authorities during recent visits.
More than three dozen nations — including all 28 members of the European Union — expressed their concern about "arbitrary detention of human rights defenders" in Saudi Arabia and called on Riyadh to release the activists last week.
"We are particularly concerned about the use of the counterterrorism law and other national security provisions against individuals peacefully exercising their rights and freedoms," a statement backed by the concerned countries said.
A report by Amnesty International released last year suggested several Saudi Arabian activists, including a number of women detained since May, have faced sexual harassment, torture and other forms of ill-treatment during interrogation.
The report claimed the activists were repeatedly tortured by electrocution and flogging, leaving some unable to walk or stand properly. It said one of the detained women was reportedly subjected to sexual harassment, by interrogators wearing face masks.
The women were also said to have had no legal representation.
The human rights group tweeted Tuesday its concern that al-Hathloul will be charged and tried on terrorism-related charges "for peaceful human rights work."
Other detainees include Nouf Abdelaziz, Mayaa al-Zahrani, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Saada, Shadan al-Onezi, Amal al-Harbi and Mohammed al-Rabia, according to rights groups.
Hathloul is well-known for her campaigning against the driving ban and the campaign to end the male guardianship system. She was previously detained twice, including for 73 days in 2014 after she attempted to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates.
Activists and diplomats have speculated that the arrests may have been aimed at appeasing conservative elements opposed to social reforms pushed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. They may also have been meant as a message to activists not to push demands out of sync with the government's own agenda.
The prince has courted the West to support his drive to transform the conservative kingdom and wean it off oil.
Social changes initiated under Mohammed bin Salman, such as allowing cinemas and concerts, pushing for women’s inclusion in the workplace and allowing some gender mixing, have been hailed as proof that he is steering the conservative country in a progressive direction and away from religious zealotry.
But his reputation took a major hit after Saudi agents killed Jamal Khashoggi, a longtime royal insider who had become a critic, last October at the kingdom's Istanbul consulate. A CIA assessment has blamed the crown prince for ordering the killing of Khashoggi, but Saudi officials have always denied the prince was involved.
The killing has sparked the kingdom's worst political crisis in a generation, strained ties with Western allies including the U.S., and focused attention on the crown prince's domestic crackdown on dissent.
Dozens of other activists, intellectuals and clerics have been arrested separately in the past two years in an apparent bid to stamp out possible opposition.
President Donald Trump's administration's steadfast defense of the kingdom, and in particular of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the wake of controversy, have prompted criticism even from staunch Trump allies.