Loujain al-Hathloul, who graduated from university in Canada, has spent nearly 10 months in prison on charges of supporting 'hostile elements.' She and other Saudi activists went on trial Wednesday morning.(Loujain al-Hathloul/AP)

Saudi women activists go on trial in Riyadh criminal court

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Saudi Arabia has upped the ante in their confrontation with Western countries over the fate of 10 women activists arrested last year.

Last week, the United Nations Human Rights Council issued a statement signed by three dozen countries, including Canada, condemning Saudi Arabia for arresting the activists last May.

University of British Columbia graduate Loujain al-Hathloul has been described as one of the most outspoken women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia. She has been detained there since being arrested in May. Wednesday morning Al-Hathou and other activists were put on trial by Saudi authorities. (Marieke Wijntjes/Handout via REUTERS)

Media reports from Riyadh say at least several of the women went to trial Wednesday.

However, it is unclear exactly which of the activists were in court since diplomats, journalists and human rights activists were barred.

The women in court were among about a dozen prominent activists arrested in the weeks before a ban on women driving cars in Saudi Arabia was lifted.

That group included two activists with close connections to Canada.

Demonstrators from Amnesty International stage a protest on International Women’s Day, last Friday, outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Paris to pressure Saudi authorities to release jailed women’s rights activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef. (REUTERS/Benoit Tessier)

It was originally thought only one of the activists, Loujain al-Hathloul, a graduate of the University of British Columbia, would appear the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh on Wednesday.

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, were extremely worried she would face terrorism charges and al-Hathloul’s brother Walid tweeted late Tuesday that the family had been informed her court appearance had been moved from the Specialized Criminal Court to the Criminal Court.

It remains unclear what charges she and the other women are facing,  though the BBC reports the charges include supporting “hostile elements” and could carry long prison sentences.

Samar Badawi is believed to be one of the activists to go on trial Wednesday. (cbc.ca/Amnesty International)

The other activist with Canadian connections, is Samar Badawi, whose brother is currently in a Saudi prison,

Raif Badawi has been in a Saudi jail since 2012 for his criticism of the regime. He was lashed 50 times in 2015.

Raif Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their three children became Canadian citizens last summer and currently live in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.

The City of Montreal made Raif Badawi an honorary citizen last summer.

Other detainees include Nouf Abdelaziz, Mayaa al-Zahrani, Nassima al-Saada, Shadan al-Onezi, Amal al-Harbi, Mohammed al-Rabia, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Hatoon Al-Fassi 

Jacqueline Hansen is Amnesty International Canada’s Major Campaigns and Women’s Rights Campaigner. Her work covers a wide range of human rights concerns in Canada and internationally. (Courtesy: Amnesty International Canada)

Activists and human rights groups say some of the detainees, including al-Hathloul, were held in solitary confinement and subjected to mistreatment and torture.

At this point, human rights groups are working feverishly to find out exactly what happened in Riyadh today.

I spoke briefly about the hunt for facts with Jacqueline Hansen, Amnesty International Canada’s Major Campaigns and Women’s Rights Campaigner, on Wednesday afternoon.

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With files from BBC, Reuters, Aljazeera, CBC, CP, AP

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