Saudi women activists detail torture, sexual abuse at court hearing

The trial of 11 women's rights activists in Riyadh has drawn sharp criticism from Western countries. Some of the women have said they were tortured and sexually abused during interrogation.

Saudi women activists told a court on Wednesday they had been subjected to torture and sexual abuse during more than nine months of detention, according to courtroom sources.

Eleven women face charges related to contact with international media and human rights groups, in a case that has drawn criticism from Western countries. No journalists or diplomats were allowed to observe the second hearing of the case at Riyadh's criminal court.

Human Rights | 02.03.2019

Read more: From Badawi to Khashoggi: Freedom of speech in Saudi Arabia

Sources with access to the trial told the Agence France-Presse and Reuters news agencies that some of the women described being subjected to electric shocks, flogging and sexual abuse.

The Saudi government, under international condemnation over the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul in October, has rejected the allegations of abuse.

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DW News | 20.02.2019

Fleeing Saudi women accuse embassy of threats

Detained without charge

Female activists protesting harsh restrictions on women in the kingdom, including the male guardianship system and a driving ban lifted last year, were arrested in May and detained without charge.

Among those facing trial are prominent activist Loujain al-Hathloul, blogger Eman al-Nafjan and university professor Hatoon al-Fassi.

Read more: Freedom of expression ranks low in Saudi Arabia 

Hathloul's brother, Walid, accuses Saud al-Qahtani, a top adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, of being present during the abuse. Al-Qahtani was fired in October over his alleged role in the Khashoggi murder.

"The top adviser of the prince was threatening to rape my sister, kill her, cut her body into pieces," Walid told CNN. "He's the one who should be in court today, not my sister."

Walid told DW earlier this month that his sister had been forced to sign a petition requesting forgiveness from the Saudi king. 

Public prosecutors accuse the women of undermining the kingdom's security, stability and national unity, while state-backed media have labeled them traitors and "agents of embassies."

Read more: Saudi women refugees in Germany still living in fear 

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia: A timeline

1955: First school for girls, 1970: First university for women

Girls have not always been able to go to school like these students in Riyadh. Enrollment at the first school for girls, Dar Al Hanan, began in 1955. The Riyadh College of Education, the first higher education institution for women, opened in 1970.

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia: A timeline

2001: ID cards for women

At the start of the 21st century, women could get personal ID cards for the first time. The cards are the only way for them to prove who they are, for example in disputes relating to inheritance or property issues. IDs were only issued with the permission of a woman's guardian, though, and to the guardian instead of directly to the woman. Only in 2006 were women able to get IDs without permission.

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia: A timeline

2005: End of forced marriages - on paper

Saudi Arabia banned forced marriage in 2005, but marriage contracts continue to be hammered out between the husband-to-be and the father of the bride, not the bride herself.

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia: A timeline

2009: The first female government minister

In 2009, King Abdullah appointed the first female minister to Saudi Arabia's government. Noura al-Fayez became the deputy education minister for women's affairs.

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia: A timeline

2012: First female Olympic athletes

Saudi Arabia agreed to allow female athletes to compete on the national team for the Olympics for the first time. One of them was Sarah Attar, who ran the women's 800 meter race at the 2012 Olympics in London wearing a headscarf. Before the Games, there was speculation that the Saudi Arabian team might be banned for gender discrimination if they didn't allow women to participate.

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia: A timeline

2013: Women are allowed to ride bicycles and motorbikes

Saudi leaders allowed women to ride bicycles and motorbikes for the first time in 2013 — but only in recreational areas, wearing full Islamic body covering and with a male relative present.

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia: A timeline

2013: First women in the Shura

In February 2013, King Abdullah swore in the first 30 women to the Shura, Saudi Arabia's consultative council. This allowed women to be appointed to these positions, soon they would be allowed to actually run for office...

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia: A timeline

2015: Women can vote and get elected

In Saudi Arabia's 2015 municipal elections, women were able to vote and run for office for the first time. By contrast, New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote, in 1893. Germany did so in 1919. At the 2015 Saudi polls, 20 women were elected to municipal roles in the absolute monarchy.

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia: A timeline

2017: First female head of the Saudi stock exchange

In February 2017, the Saudi stock exchange names the first female chairperson in its history, Sarah Al Suhaimi.

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia: A timeline

2018: Women to be allowed in sports stadiums

On October 29, 2017, the country's General Sports Authority announced that women would be allowed into sports stadiums for the first time. Three previously male-only arenas will soon be open for women as well, starting in early 2018.

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia: A timeline

2018: Driving ban eliminated

On September 26, 2017, Saudi Arabia announced that women would soon be allowed to drive, causing a flurry of driving courses for women to prepare for June 2018, when they would no longer need permission from their male guardian to get a driver's license or need their guardian in the car when they drive.

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia: A timeline

2019: Saudi women to be notified by text message if they are divorced

The new law, designed to protect them from having their marriage ended without their knowledge, will allow women to check their marital status online or visit a court to get a copy of divorce papers. Human rights defenders say the law does nothing to address the fact that Saudi women can only obtain divorces in exceedingly limited cases — such as with her husband’s consent or if he has harmed her.

International pressure

Some three dozen countries, including all 28 EU members, Canada and Australia, have called on Saudi authorities to release the women.

There has been speculation that international pressure could possibly lead to the women receiving acquittals or pardons.

Prince Mohammed, the kingdom's de facto ruler and heir to the crown, has launched a crackdown since last year in a bid to muzzle dissent. The renewed repression and Khashoggi's murder have tarnished his carefully crafted image as an economic and social reformer.

Jamal Khashoggi: A mysterious disappearance and death

Vanishes into thin air

October 2: Prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he had gone to obtain an official document for his upcoming marriage to his Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz. He never emerged from the building, prompting Cengiz, who waited outside, to raise the alarm.

Jamal Khashoggi: A mysterious disappearance and death

Confusion over whereabouts

October 3: Turkish and Saudi officials came up with conflicting reports on Khashoggi's whereabouts. Riyadh said the journalist had left the mission shortly after his work was done. But Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said the journalist was still in the consulate.

Jamal Khashoggi: A mysterious disappearance and death

Murder claims

October 6: Turkish officials said they believed the journalist was likely killed inside the Saudi consulate. The Washington Post, for which Khashoggi wrote, cited unnamed sources to report that Turkish investigators believe a 15-member team "came from Saudi Arabia" to kill the man.

Jamal Khashoggi: A mysterious disappearance and death

Ankara seeks proof

October 8: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Saudi Arabia to prove that Khashoggi left its consulate in Istanbul. Turkey also sought permission to search the mission premises. US President Donald Trump voiced concern about the journalist's disappearance.

Jamal Khashoggi: A mysterious disappearance and death

'Davos in the Desert' hit

October 12: British billionaire Richard Branson halted talks over a $1 billion Saudi investment in his Virgin group's space ventures, citing Khashoggi's case. He also pulled out of an investment conference in Riyadh dubbed the "Davos in the Desert." His move was followed by Uber's Dara Khosrowshahi, JP Morgan's Jamie Dimon and a host of other business leaders.

Jamal Khashoggi: A mysterious disappearance and death

Search operation

October 15: Turkish investigators searched the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The search lasted more than eight hours and investigators removed samples from the building, including soil from the consulate garden and a metal door, one official said.

Jamal Khashoggi: A mysterious disappearance and death

Death after fistfight

October 19: Saudi Arabia finally admitted that Khashoggi died at the consulate. The kingdom's public prosecutor said preliminary investigations showed the journalist was killed in a "fistfight." He added that 18 people had been detained. A Saudi Foreign Ministry official said the country is "investigating the regrettable and painful incident."

Jamal Khashoggi: A mysterious disappearance and death

'Grave mistake'

October 21: Saudi Arabia provided yet another account of what happened to Khashoggi. The kingdom's foreign minister admitted the journalist was killed in a "rogue operation," calling it a "huge and grave mistake," but insisted that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had not been aware of the murder. Riyadh said it had no idea where Khashoggi's body was.

Jamal Khashoggi: A mysterious disappearance and death

Germany halts arms sales

October 21: German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany would put arms exports to Saudi Arabia on hold for the time being, given the unexplained circumstances of Khashoggi's death. Germany is the fourth largest exporter of weapons to Saudi Arabia after the United States, Britain and France.

Jamal Khashoggi: A mysterious disappearance and death

Strangled to death, dissolved in acid

October 31: The Turkish prosecutor concluded that Khashoggi was strangled to death soon after entering the consulate, and was then dismembered. Another Turkish official later claimed the body was dissolved in acid. Turkish President Erdogan said the order to murder the journalist came from "the highest levels" of Saudi Arabia's government.

Jamal Khashoggi: A mysterious disappearance and death

Grilled at the UN

November 5: Saudi Arabia told the United Nations it would prosecute those responsible for Khashoggi's murder. This came as the United States and dozens of other countries raised the journalist's death before the UN Human Rights Council and called for a transparent investigation.

Jamal Khashoggi: A mysterious disappearance and death

Fiancee in mourning

November 8: Khashoggi's fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, wrote on Twitter that she was "unable to express her sorrow" upon learning that the journalist's body was dissolved with chemicals. "Are these killers and those behind it human beings?" she tweeted.

Jamal Khashoggi: A mysterious disappearance and death

Turkey shares audio recordings

November 10: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reveals that officials from Saudi Arabia, the US, Germany, France and Britain have listened to audio recordings related to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Jamal Khashoggi: A mysterious disappearance and death

Symbolic funeral prayers

November 16: A symbolic funeral prayer for Khashoggi is held in the courtyard of the Fatih Mosque in Istanbul. Yasin Aktay, advisor to President Erdogan, speaks at the service.

Jamal Khashoggi: A mysterious disappearance and death

Saudi-owned villas searched

November 26: Turkish forensic police bring the investigation to the Turkish province of Yalova, where sniffer dogs and drones search two Saudi-owned villas in the village Samanli.

Jamal Khashoggi: A mysterious disappearance and death

100 days since killing

January 10: Amnesty International Turkey members demonstrate outside the Saudi Arabia Consulate in Istanbul, marking 100 day since the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. One woman holds up a street sign which reads "Jamal Khashoggi Street". The organization has called for an international investigation into the case.

Jamal Khashoggi: A mysterious disappearance and death

Saudi murder trial begins

January 3: The Khashoggi trial begins in Saudi Arabia, where state prosecutors say they will seek the death sentence for five of the eleven suspects. A request for the gathered evidence has been send to Turkish authorities. A date for the second hearing has not yet been set.

Jamal Khashoggi: A mysterious disappearance and death

UN inquiry team in Turkey

January 28: Agnes Callamard, who is leading the UN probe into the handling of the Khashoggi case, arrives in Ankara where she meets with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. The human rights expect will stay in the country for the rest of the week to speak with prosecutors and others involved in the case.

cw/cmk (AFP, Reuters)

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