Saudi women activists detained for nearly a year offered their defence at an emotionally charged hearing on Wednesday, alleging torture and sexual harassment during interrogation, courtroom sources said.
Thursday's development comes as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman continues to face widespread global criticism over the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul a year ago in an operation planned by two of the prince's top aides. They also allege they have been subjected to sexual abuse and torture throughout their imprisonment, leading one woman to attempt suicide, according to details provided to The Associated Press.
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.
The women, including prominent activist Loujain al-Hathloul, blogger Eman al-Nafjan and university professor Hatoon al-Fassi, were detained last summer in a sweeping crackdown on campaigners just before the historic lifting of a decades-long ban on female motorists.
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 previous year.
The fact that al-Hathloul once applied for a job at the United Nations is part of the kingdom's case against, CNN reports.More news: Woman sentenced in viral Moulton Falls bridge-shoving incident
But the relative said that the women, freed after almost a year in detention, will still have to appear in court next Wednesday when the trial resumes.
There, the women have said they were caned on their backs and thighs, electrocuted and waterboarded by masked men who did not identify themselves, the AP reported.
Some women have 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. The charges also include contact with global organizations, foreign media and other activists, the rights group said.
Several of the women on trial are considered Saudi Arabia's most prominent rights activists.
The women had long campaigned for the right to drive and an end to the restrictive guardianship system that gives male relatives arbitrary authority over women.
The Criminal Court in Riyadh said the detainees were released after it studied requests that they made during hearings and the necessary requirements were met.More news: Yemen's civil war enters fifth year
Foreign media journalists and other independent observers are barred from the judicial proceedings. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
The government has denied charges of abuse as "wild claims" that are "simply wrong". They were initially accused of having ties to foreign intelligence agencies and labeled traitors by state media.
Al-Hathloul's brother Walid said relatives don't know what to expect. It said their cases were ongoing. It named them as Dr. Rokaya Mohareb "and activists Aziza al-Youssef and Eman al-Nafjan".
As activists faced pressure to keep silent, credit for social reforms like the decision to allow women the right to drive had largely gone to the crown prince.
Saudi Arabia's Public Prosecution had announced on March 1 that it has concluded its investigation and prepared the list of charges against individuals who were arrested by the Presidency of State Security, in the wake of uncovering coordinated and organized activities to "undermine the Kingdom's security, stability and national unity".More news: Apple ‘playing the long game’ with digital credit card and services push