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Asia Today ISSN 1861-4604 Tuesday, January 23, 2018

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Two Saudi women drivers to be tried in terrorism court

The women were brought to the court not for breaking the ban

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - In a surprisingly shocking move, Saudi authorities have sent two women, who were earlier detained for nearly a month after defying a ban on female drivers, to a counterterrorism court.

Loujain al-Hathloul, 25, and Maysa al-Alamoudi, 33, a UAE-based journalist, have become the first female drivers to be referred to the court in Riyadh. The ruling came at a hearing in Al-Ahsa, in the kingdom's Eastern Province.

According to activists, the women were brought to the court not for breaking the ban, but for their social media activities.

They have been vocal Twitter supporters of a campaign opposing the ban, gathering 355,000 followers between them.

Although there is no explicit law banning women from driving, they are not issued driving licences by authorities. Saudi clerics have issued religious edicts against the practice.

Theirs is already the longest detention for women behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia's history.

The Human Rights Watch has denounced the Saudi authorities over the case. It alleged that the authorities were widening a crackdown on online criticism of the government, exploiting a 2007 law against cyber crime which is being used to prosecute people for their tweets and social media comments.

"Saudi authorities are ramping up their crackdown on people who peacefully criticize the government on the Internet," the rights group warned.

It said that judges and prosecutors are using "vague provisions of a 2007 anti-cybercrime law to charge and try Saudi citizens for peaceful tweets and social media comments."

According to the Associated Press, their lawyers 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.

This is not the first time that the authorities have clamped down on Saudi women who attempt to drive.

In 1990, 50 women were arrested for driving. They had their passports confiscated and lost their jobs.

More than 20 years later, a woman was sentenced in 2011 to 10 lashes for driving, though the king overturned the sentence.

"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."

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