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Saudi Arabia reportedly releases several female rights activists from prison

Several female activists swept up last year in Saudi Arabia in a crackdown on human rights advocates were released from prison on Thursday, according to a London-based rights group and family members speaking to French news agency AFP.

The ALQST human rights organization, one of the few such groups with members operating inside Saudi Arabia, said in a tweet that three of the 11 women who have been on trial this week were freed. It named them as Dr. Rokaya Mohareb "and activists Aziza al-Youssef and Eman al-Nafjan."

The group said Saudi officials had made "promises that the others will be released on Sunday 31 March."

AFP cited a relative of one of the women as confirming the news.

The Saudi women's rights activists appeared before a three-judge panel in a Riyadh courtroom on Wednesday and laid out their defense. They spoke of physical and sexual abuse they said they had been subjected to by masked interrogators, according to people with knowledge of the case.

Activists claim torture  

Wednesday's hearing marked a significant moment for the 11 women, nearly all of whom were taken from their homes in the Saudi capital 10 months ago and transferred to the Red Sea city of Jiddah just weeks before the kingdom lifted its ban on women driving.

The women, appearing in their second court session since their arrest in May, had long pushed for the right to drive and called for an end to restrictive male guardianship laws. The laws require women of all ages to have a male relative's consent to travel abroad, obtain a passport, marry or undergo certain medical procedures.

Several people with knowledge of the cases say charges against the women relate to their efforts to promote women's rights and having contact with accredited foreign reporters, diplomats and human rights groups.

On Wednesday, the women sat next to their relatives in Riyadh's criminal court and spoke through a microphone to the presiding judge who sat before them, according to details provided to The Associated Press. In between the emotional speeches, in which some of the women wept, they were able to hug and speak with one another and their families.

Women get behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia

Journalists working for foreign media, diplomats and other independent observers have not been allowed to sit-in on the hearings.

The judge had been expected to decide Thursday whether to grant some of the women temporary release from prison, but the terms of the releases reportedly granted on Thursday remained unclear.

One of the women told the panel of three judges that several men, who seemed intoxicated, appeared late one night and took her from her place of detention in Jiddah to a nearby secret location.

It's there that the women have said they were caned on their backs and thighs, electrocuted and waterboarded by masked men who did not identify themselves. Some women said they were forcibly touched and groped, made to break their fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and threatened with rape and death. One of the women attempted suicide in prison.

Demonstrators from Amnesty International protest outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy on International Women's day in Paris
Demonstrators from Amnesty International stage the protest on International WomenÕs day to urge Saudi authorities to release jailed women's rights activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Paris, France, March 8, 2019. REUTERS

The Associated Press learned of the details from several people with knowledge of the arrests. All spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal and to protect personal details about the detainees.

The government has denied charges of abuse as "wild claims" that are "simply wrong."

The kingdom, meanwhile, continues to face international criticism over the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October, allegedly by members of Prince Mohammed's entourage, as well as over its yearslong war in Yemen.

Several of the women on trial are considered Saudi Arabia's most prominent rights activists. Among them are Aziza al-Yousef, grandmother and former professor al-Nafjan, a mother of four and linguistics professor, and Loujain al-Hathloul an outspoken rights activist who was pursuing a master's degree in the United Arab Emirates before her family says she was abducted and forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia last year.

State-linked media published images of the three women and branded them traitors and "foreign agents" shortly after their arrest.

Last month, some of the women were pressured into signing a request for a royal pardon, according to people with knowledge of the arrests.

Other women in Saudi jails

Two other prominent women's rights activist detained in the crackdown, Samar Badawi and Naseema al-Sada, were not among the 11 being tried in Riyadh. In total, more than 20 people have been detained in connection to women's rights activism.

The fate of another female Saudi prisoner, Israa al-Ghomgham, remains unclear. In an apparent shift, Saudi Arabia said in February that it was not seeking the death penalty against al-Ghomgham, who rights groups previously said was the first woman in the country to possibly face execution for non-violent activism.

Saudi Arabia seeks death penalty for female activist

A representative at the Saudi Arabian embassy in London confirmed to CBS News that prosecutors were not seeking the death penalty -- though the representative also said they never had been. CBS News reported on the death penalty charges last year, citing human rights organizations and court documents

"From the beginning, the Saudi prosecutor has not sought the death sentence for Israa al-Ghomgham," the representative said on Feb. 1 this year. "Rather, he has demanded a sentence of imprisonment, fines, and the confiscation of anything found to have been used in preparing the alleged crime."

Human rights activists said Friday that Saudi prosecutors had dropped the death penalty in response to increased international scrutiny following the killing of Kashoggi.   

Al-Ghomgham is still in jail and has been in detention in Saudi Arabia since 2015, when she was arrested for peaceful activism related to fighting discrimination against the kingdom's Shiite Muslim minority.