Two Saudi Arabian women detained by authorities for nearly a month after flouting a ban on female drivers are to be tried in a special court for terrorists.
Loujain al-Hathloul, 25, and 33-year-old Maysa al-Alamoudi, a UAE-based journalist, are the first female drivers to be referred to the court in Riyadh.
According to activists, the pair are being brought before the court not for breaking the ban, but for their social media activity. Theirs is already the longest detention for women behind the wheel in Saudi history.
Sources close to the two women declined to comment further on the specific charges due to the sensitivity of the case - and for fear of reprisals.
According to the Associated Press, defence lawyers immediately appealed the judge's decision to transfer their cases to the court, which was established to try terrorism cases, but which can also be used to try peaceful dissidents and activists. An appeals court in Dammam, the capital of Eastern Province, is expected to rule on the referral in the coming days, they said.
"This is not an isolated case," Saudi activist Hala al-Dosari told the BBC. "This is just a way to really curb the momentum of campaigning and [the] engagement of citizens."
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women aren't allowed to drive. Though it's not technically illegal, only men can get driving licenses, and women caught in charge of a vehicle are usually liable for fines and arrest - and conservative clerics have issued religious edicts against female drivers. In 2011, a woman was sentenced to 10 lashes, but her punishment was overturned by the king.
Human Rights Watch has recently warned that "Saudi authorities are ramping up their crackdown on people who peacefully criticise the government on the Internet". It said that judges and prosecutors are using "vague provisions of a 2007 anti-cyber crime law to charge and try Saudi citizens for peaceful tweets and social media comments".
At the time of their arrest, al-Hathloul and al-Alamoudi had a combined Twitter following of more than 355,000. They are vocal supporters of a grassroots campaign launched last year to oppose the ban on women driving.
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