Ten Saudi women appeared in court Wednesday for the first time since being detained last year in a sweeping crackdown on activists, ratcheting up scrutiny of the kingdom's human rights record.
The trial of the women, who have been held for nearly a year without charge, comes as Saudi Arabia seeks to placate international criticism over last year's brutal murder of insider-turned-critic Jamal Khashoggi.
Prominent activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Hatoon al-Fassi, Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan were among those who attended Riyadh's criminal court, where they heard charges raised against them, court president Ibrahim al-Sayari said.
Family members of the women -- some of whom allegedly faced torture and sexual harassment during interrogation -- were permitted to attend the opening court session, but reporters and western diplomats were barred from entering.
The charges against the women were not immediately disclosed to the public.
"It now seems that the authorities will charge the women's rights activists, after keeping them in detention for nearly one year without any access to lawyers, and where they faced torture, ill treatment and sexual harassment," said Amnesty International's Middle East campaigns director Samah Hadid.
"The authorities are now treating defending women's rights as a crime, which is a dangerous escalation in the country and their crackdown on human rights activism," Hadid told AFP.
Sayari said the women detainees had been granted access to independent lawyers, a claim previously contested by several family members.
- 'Escalating repression' -
More than a dozen activists were arrested in May last year, just a month before the historic lifting of a decades-long ban on women drivers. Some were subsequently released.
The detained activists have been accused of "coordinated activity to undermine the security, stability and social harmony of the kingdom", the public prosecutor said earlier this month. State-backed media have previously branded them as traitors and "agents of embassies".
Human Rights Watch researcher Adam Coogle said the trial and "alleged mistreatment" of the women "is yet another sign of escalating repression in Saudi Arabia".
"Authorities should immediately halt these unfair proceedings and release any activist charged solely based on their peaceful activism," he told AFP.
Amnesty and the family of Hathloul, who was among the detainees who allegedly faced sexual harassment and torture during interrogation, had voiced fears that the women would be charged with terrorism.
The trial was expected to take place at Riyadh's Specialised Criminal Court, established to handle terrorism-related cases but widely used to try political prisoners.
But relatives of the detained women said on Wednesday they received a call from authorities at midnight, informing them the trial had been shifted to the criminal court. No reason was given.
- Paving way for acquital? -
The move has triggered speculation that the activists could be released under the cover of a judicial process, after the crackdown prompted scathing criticism against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
"Terrorism charges are very hard politically for the Saudi government to go soft on, but criminal charges may open the door for an acquittal," Bessma Momani, a professor at Canada's University of Waterloo, said.
"The Saudis need to change the page on this file badly -- its economy and success of its reform drive hinges on removing the negative perceptions that the arrests of these women has caused," she told AFP.
Prince Mohammed's much-trumpeted drive to modernise the conservative kingdom has been dented by the jailing of female activists who had long campaigned for the right to drive.
The detentions were part of a deeper crackdown by Saudi authorities on activists, clerics and critics in recent years, in what was widely seen as a stamping out of political dissent.
It has ramped up international criticism of Saudi Arabia, which has faced global outrage over journalist Khashoggi's murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October.
Last week, 36 nations condemned Saudi Arabia over the murder, in a rare censure of the wealthy oil-rich kingdom at the UN Human Rights Council.