This week, the trial of ten Saudi activists started in Riyadh, who had allegedly been held for nine months without charge, amid rumors of mistreatment. In the last months, international media has been reporting continuously on the case of Saudi jailed human rights activists, raising concern about their fate and fairness of the trial.
Last week, the first information was made public that the trial was to take place soon. There was no official statement from the Saudi authorities concerning the accusations of mistreatment. The official announcement came on the first day of the trial and appeared in the English-language newspaper Arab News and Arabic-language Okaz and Al Madinah. They reported that the trial of the accused will be attended by their family members, but that the public and press are excluded due to privacy concerns raised by the Saudi government.
In the last few months, Saudi Arabia has faced a wave of criticism on human rights issues. While international media have demanded fairness and transparency concerning the fate of these activists, Saudi spokespersons have insisted that the government is following Islamic Law which permits full transparency once the investigation is ended. It is stated that the procedures of the Islamic judicial system differ from those of western judicial systems.
At a press conference in Riyadh attended by foreign diplomats and reporters, Saudi Supreme Court president Ibrahim Al Sayiari explained the rules governing the trial. He stated that all accused will be given a chance to reply to the accusations through their lawyers, who have either been appointed by them, or by the government for those who could not afford a lawyer. Also, judgments are the same for men and women, there are no gender differences.
The activists are accused of harming Saudi interests and offering support to foreign hostile elements.
In fact, it is obvious that this trial and other similar cases will attract a high level of publicity and considerable attention from international media and human rights organizations. In advance of the trial, concerns were raised that the proceedings may not be fair and that punishment will be applied without a fair trial.
In Saudi Arabia, people have mixed feelings about this case. Many regard the international reaction as unbalanced and unfair. International media have portrayed female activists as the guardians of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. However, many women to whom I have spoken with and who wish to remain anonymous fear that the activists may, in fact, cause a conservative backlash hindering freedom of development. Although most of them believe that things are moving slowly, they also believe that this applies to all type of changes in Saudi Arabia.
Many women highlighted that Saudi women have always defended their rights building a solid foundation for women and children in society, but did so quietly away from the limelight. Most of them believe that it is probably due to the effect of social media that is influencing reporting and speed of spreading news.
What I personally found interesting are the readers’ comments posted below the article that appeared in the online edition of Arab News, with a wide range of views, some stating that the accused are innocent, while others wrote that they will get a fair trial.