Two women’s rights campaigners detained in Saudi Arabia for driving have been transferred to a special tribunal for “terrorism,” activists said on Thursday after the women appeared in court.
The ruling came at a hearing in al-Ahsa, in the kingdom’s Eastern Province, according to the activists who declined to be named.
Loujain Hathloul has been detained since December 1 after she tried to drive into the kingdom from neighboring United Arab Emirates in defiance of a ban. Maysaa Al-Amoudi, a UAE-based Saudi journalist, arrived at the border to support Hathloul and was also arrested.
US-ally Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world which does not allow women to drive.
Activists say women’s driving is not actually against the law, and the ban is linked to tradition and custom ultra-conservative Wahhabi nation, and not backed by Islamic text or judicial ruling.
Some leading members of the kingdom’s powerful Wahhabi clergy have argued against women being allowed to drive, which they say could lead to them mingling with unrelated men, thereby breaching strict gender segregation rules.
Last November the oil-rich kingdom’s top cleric, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh, said the female driving prohibition protects society from “evil” and should not be a major concern.
“They will transfer her case to the terrorism court,” said an activist familiar with Hathloul’s case, adding that her lawyer plans to appeal.
A second activist confirmed that Amoudi’s case was also being moved to the specialist tribunal.
Human Rights Watch have urged the Saudi authorities to abolish The Specialized Criminal Court, Saudi Arabia’s scandalous “terrorism tribunal,” to which the women’s cases were referred.
The court is the same body that convicted prominent cleric and pro-rights advocate Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and sentenced him to death alongside four other pro-democracy advocates for criticizing the kingdom’s unfair doings and calling for greater rights for Saudi minorities.
HRW said that analysis of trials of a number of human rights workers, peaceful dissidents, activists and critics of the Saudi regime revealed “serious due process concerns” such as “broadly framed charges,” “denial of access to lawyers,” and “quick dismissal of allegations of torture without investigation.”
Activists did not provide full details of the allegations against Hathloul and Amoudi but said investigations appeared to also focus on the women’s social media activities.
Saudi Arabia, which is on media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) group’s “Enemies of the Internet” list, has been particularly aggressive in policing the Internet, including by arresting those who post critical articles or comments.
Hathloul, who has 228,000 followers on Twitter, tweeted before her arrest, sometimes with humor, details of the 24 hours she spent waiting to cross into Saudi Arabia after border officers stopped her.
Amoudi has 131,000 followers and has also hosted a program on YouTube discussing the driving ban.
Some 41 percent of internet users in the oil-rich kingdom use Twitter, a study published by the US-based Business Insider website found.
The micro-blogging site has stirred broad debate on subjects ranging from religion to politics in a country where such public discussion had been considered at best unseemly and sometimes illegal.
Scores of Saudis have been arrested over the years for posting content critical of the Wahhabi regime on Twitter and other social media outlets.
In February, RSF said that Gulf monarchies, in a yet another crackdown on dissent, have stepped up efforts to monitor and control the media, particularly online.
In early December, Saudi authorities blocked the website of a regional human rights group which reported the two women’s arrest.
Moreover, Saudi women have taken to social media in protest of the ban on female driving.
In October, dozens posted images online of themselves behind the wheel as part of an online campaign supporting the right to drive.
They also circulated an online petition asking the Saudi government to “lift the ban on women driving” in a move that attracted more than 2,400 signatures ahead of the campaign’s culmination on October 26.
In response, the Ministry of Interior said it would “strictly implement” measures against anyone undermining “the social cohesion.”
Late October, the UN Human Rights Council urged Saudi Arabia to crack down on discrimination against women among other rights abuses.
The council had already adopted a report listing 225 recommendations for improvements a couple of days earlier in Geneva during a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the Western-backed kingdom’s rights record.
Many of the UN recommendations called on Riyadh to abolish a system requiring women to seek permission from male relatives to work, marry or leave the country, and one urged it to lift the driving ban.