Detained Saudi women's rights activists brought to court

FILE - In this June 22, 2018 file photo, women watch a video about driving at a road safety event for female drivers launched at the Riyadh Park Mall in Saudi Arabia. Women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia appeared in a closed-door court hearing on unknown charges, Wednesday, March 13, 2019, after being detained in a crackdown last year, making their first appearance before a judge in the internationally criticized case. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty, File)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia appeared in a closed-door court hearing Wednesday on unknown charges after being detained in a crackdown last year, making their first appearance before a judge in a case that has sparked international outrage.

The arrests came just before Saudi Arabia began allowing women to drive, something women's rights activists had been demanding for years. The arrests showed that King Salman and his 33-year-old son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, are willing to crack down on any opposition even while courting the West.

It also was sandwiched between the mass arrest of businessmen in what authorities said was a campaign against corruption, and the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

Saudi authorities did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday, and Saudi state media did not immediately report on the hearing. Authorities barred Western diplomats and journalists from the hearing in Riyadh, a person with knowledge of the hearing told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

It wasn't clear if those brought to court appeared in separate or joint hearings.

Amnesty International said those brought to court included Aziza al-Yousef, Loujain al-Hathloul and Eman al-Nafjan, who are seen as icons of the women's rights movement in Saudi Arabia. The government previously has accused them of national security crimes, including working with "foreign entities" to harm the interests of the kingdom. State-backed papers ran blood-red headlines declaring them "traitors" months before Wednesday's hearing.

Al-Hathloul's brother, Walid, as well as Amnesty, said their court appearance was moved to a criminal court from one specialized in terrorism cases. It wasn't immediately clear if that meant they faced lesser charges.

"It is quite concerning that they are likely to be charged for simply defending women's rights," Amnesty International's Samah Hadid told the AP.

Several people with knowledge of their arrest have told the AP that some of the women have been subjected to caning, electrocution and sexual assault. All spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal and to protect personal details about the detainees. A Saudi deputy prosecutor has reportedly denied those detained have been tortured.

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Batrawy reported from Hong Kong.

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