Several Saudi Arabian women rights activists stood trial on Wednesday for the first time since a group of them were detained a year ago in a case that has intensified scrutiny of Riyadh's human rights record after the murder of a prominent journalist.
But his reputation was tarnished after Saudi agents killed Jamal Khashoggi, a royal insider-turned-critic, last October at the kingdom's Istanbul consulate.
Loujain Al Hathloul, Aziza Al Yousef, Eman Al Nafjan and Hatoon Al Fassi are among around 10 women appearing before the criminal court in the capital, Riyadh, where charges will be presented against them, court president Ibrahim Al Sayari said.
Family members of the women - some of whom allegedly faced torture and sexual harassment during interrogation - were permitted to attend the opening court session, but reporters and western diplomats were barred from entering.
The government has not publicly shared the charges against the activists.
"This trial is yet another stain on the Saudi authorities' appalling human rights record, and shows how empty the government's claims of reform really are", said Samah Hadid, Amnesty International's Middle East Campaigns Director.
"The authorities are now treating defending women's rights as a crime, which is a unsafe escalation in the country and their crackdown on human rights activism", Hadid told AFP.
She was arrested then and released more than two months later, but was arrested again last May, just weeks before the ban on women driving was lifted, and has remained in jail since. Some were subsequently released.
The women are accused of "coordinated activity to undermine the security, stability and social peace of the kingdom", the state prosecutor said. State-backed media have previously branded them as traitors and "agents of embassies".
"Authorities should immediately halt these unfair proceedings and release any activist charged exclusively based on their peaceful activism", he told AFP.
"We fear she will be charged and tried on terrorism-related charges for peaceful human rights work", Amnesty International tweeted.
Alhathloul's brother, Walid, tweeted late on Tuesday that her case had been moved from the Specialized Criminal Court, which hears terrorism cases, to the criminal court in Riyadh. Local sources told Alqst that the Riyadh Criminal Court has opened three different proceedings; women face up to five years in prison and have so far been unable to benefit from the defense of a lawyer. No reason was given. Their arrests were part of a rolling crackdown, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, that analysts said was aimed at sidelining his competitors, consolidating power and portraying the crown prince, at home and overseas, as the sole architect of reform and progress in the kingdom.
The arrests of senior officials and business people past year, the crackdown on activists and critical voices, the war in Yemen with its civilian victims, children included, and the assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi cast a dark shadow on Saudi Arabia.
Prince Mohammed's much-trumpeted drive to modernize the conservative kingdom has been dented by the detentions, part of a wider crackdown by Saudi authorities on activists, clerics and critics in recent years seen as stamping out political dissent.
In this photo from November 30, 2018, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman adjusts his robe as leaders gather for the group at the G20 Leader's Summit at the Costa Salguero Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
On 8 March last 36 nations at the UN Human Rights Council criticized Riyadh for human rights violations, with a particular reference to incarcerated women.