CAIRO - A court hearing Wednesday in Saudi Arabia for women activists is drawing some international criticism for perceived flaws in the kingdom's human rights record. The Saudi court hearing coincided with a U.S. State Department human rights report, which criticized Riyadh and many other countries.
The Saudi news channel al-Ikhbariya reported that the women activists, most of whom were arrested last year, had "violated acceptable religious and civic norms, in addition to dealing with shadowy elements outside the kingdom to conduct a smear campaign."
The closed-door hearing Wednesday for Loujain al-Hathloul and other women activists drew criticism from Human Rights Watch, along with several other international human rights organizations. Reporters and diplomats were not allowed to attend the unannounced hearing, at which charges were presented against the women for the first time.
Saudi Human Rights Association head Bandar bin-Ayban told Arab media that much of the international criticism against Riyadh was part of an effort to sully the image of the kingdom abroad.
He says that he believes that many (human rights) complaints presented by other countries were made in order to damage the image of Saudi Arabia and he has thrown out those accusations and won't evaluate them.
Abdel Aziz Mo'ayed, an opponent of the Saudi government, told al-Hurra TV that the court hearing against the women activists was an "outrage."
He says the Saudi court hearing should trouble the conscience of all free men. He cites the recent U.S. State Department report on human rights around the world, claiming that Saudi courts make a mockery of justice and do not adhere to international standards. One defendant, he says, wasn't even allowed to have an attorney, according to her brother.
Hilal Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut, tells VOA that despite the official Saudi response of anger over the court hearing, Riyadh takes criticism by Washington "very seriously."
"There is no question that the Saudi government is sensitive to any criticism by the U.S. — unlike other countries — [and they] take U.S. criticism very seriously because they know that they depend heavily on U.S. protection of the Kingdom," he said.
The U.S. Senate recently voted to ask President Donald Trump to suspend American support for the Saudi-backed coalition in Yemen. Trump has been adamant about refusing to do so, despite criticism over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, Turkey last October.
Saudi commentator Suleiman Ageily told al-Hurra TV that he believes Riyadh "is now making advances in the area of women's rights, so the need for actual protests [by women] is no longer important." He says the "main issue [in the case] is not human rights, but security concerns and efforts by outside parties to destabilize the kingdom."