17 Women On Trial For Anti-Government Protests In Saudi Arabia

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The Specialized Criminal Court held the first hearing against 13 Saudi women for allegedly participating in rallies, protests and demonstrations against the regime.

Thirteen women in Saudi Arabia are on trial for allegedly participating in rallies, protests and demonstrations demanding an end to the Al-Saud monarchy and burning photos of the minister of interior.

They face charges of using social media for their “traitorous” purposes.

The public prosecutor asked the warden to legally condemn them, charge them and also impose a travel ban.

Two lawyers attended the hearing representing four of the accused women. Thirteen other women arrested during the same protests and were earlier released refused to appear before the judge.

The judge ordered the 13 accused present for the next hearing as he requested to hear their direct response to the accusations.

When one of the lawyers said that he could not confirm their presence in the next hearing due to the distance between their hometown Qassim and the capital Riyadh, the judge vowed to provide housing and tickets to facilitate their attendance.

The four women  present for the hearing have been asked to have a detailed response to the charges within a month.

About 160 people, including women and children belonging to the Shiite minority, were arrested by Saudi security forces in 2013 in the city of Buraida for protesting outside that city's Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution.

Buraida, the provincial capital of Qassim Province, is considered part of the ultraconservative city of kingdom as well as the scene of several small-scaleprotests by people demanding the release of jailed relatives who have allegedly been held for years without having been charged, tried or given access to lawyers.

Protests In Saudi Arabia

The minority Shi'ite Muslims in the predominantly Sunni kingdom have been demanding equal rights and protesting against alleged discrimination and negligence, which the government denies.

"This cat and mouse game authorities in Saudi Arabia are playing is, simply, outrageous," said Philip Luther, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa program director. "Instead of persecuting peaceful protesters, what the Saudi Authorities should do is listen to their demands and release all those held solely for exercising their human rights."

"We are calling for the release of our family members, like my husband, who've been in jail for years unlawfully," a woman protestor told CNN on request of anonymity. "And we're demanding the ouster of Interior Minister Mohammed Bin Nayef."

Prince Mohammed is one of the most powerful Saudi government officials, controlling the police, counterterrorism forces, several special forces units, the religious police and more.

The Islamic kingdom has detained hundreds of members of its Shi'ite minority after protests from 2011-13, during which several policemen were killed in shooting and petrol bomb attacks.

Demonstrations are prohibited in Saudi Arabia, a deeply conservative country that never experienced the kind of large protests that took root in the region as a result of the Arab Spring in 2011.

Abdulaziz Al-Shubaily, an activist and member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, said "many prisoners have been in jail for years without having been charged."

"There's no reason for that," he added. "If you're not going to charge someone, you should release them."

Interior Ministry Spokesman Major Gen. Mansour Al-Turki told CNN that Saudi government officials would not comment on cases currently being "looked at by the courts."

Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace calls the prisoner issue "the most explosive grievance in the kingdom right now."

"That said, I think it will remain contained," he explained. "The ruling family still has enormous co-optive and repressive resources at its disposal. It is still able to present itself as the glue that binds the country together, an indispensable arbiter over a fractious and dangerously conservative population."

Saudi Arabia is a country notorious for its corporal punishment, executions and brutal crackdown on dissent. Yet, protests are becoming increasingly frequent in the country.

At least three other Shi'ites alongside prominent Shi'ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr were executed in early 2016.

Not long ago, Abdullah al-Zaher, a teenager, arrested for attending an anti-government rally, was put on death row as part of a crackdown on Shiite dissent by the kingdom.

Saudi authorities arrested Zaher in March 2012, just days before his 16th birthday and charged him with “harboring” protesters, attending a demonstration, chanting slogans, setting a car on fire, “concealing the offense of incitement” and throwing petrol bombs.

People also recently rallied for the rights of women on social media using a trending hashtag #TogetherToEndMaleGuardianship to campaign against male guardianship. 

It may be safe to say that despite the Saud family’s iron-clad rule of the kingdom, dissent and demand for rights is fast becoming a reality to be reckoned with.

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