Saudi women's driving activist on trial almost 2 years after ban was lifted

Loujain al-Hathloul, 30, was arrested in Saudi Arabia in May 2018.

LONDON -- The trial of a prominent human rights activist who campaigned for women being allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia held its first open-court session Wednesday, nearly two years after her arrest.

Loujain al-Hathloul, 30, was arrested in the Kingdom in May 2018, along with 11 other women's rights campaigners. Just over a month later, women in Saudi Arabia got behind the wheels of their cars and drove for the first time after over three decades of campaigning from activists to overturn the ban on women's driving.

The lifting of the ban was initially met with euphoria by women drivers in the Kingdom, although the trial of al-Hathloul highlights that reforms have been limited and Saudi Arabia still faces intense criticism on its human rights record.

In total, 13 women's rights activists remain on trial, with al-Hathloul and four others held in detention, according to Amnesty International.

"The very existence of this sham trial pulls the veil off of the authorities' so-called push for reforms in the Kingdom," Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International's Middle East Research Director, said in a statement to ABC News. "How can they initiate change in the country when the very women who fought for these reforms are still being punished for it?"

While she was expected to make an appearance, al-Hathloul did not appear in court Wednesday, although her family members are believed to have attended, sources familiar with the case told Amnesty International. After the opening of the trial, the court has now been closed for two weeks, and the human rights group has not been told when the rescheduled court date is. If found guilty, she could face jail time.

The trial of al-Hathloul, which began on March 13 with a series of closed hearings at the Criminal Court in Riyadh, comes as the kingdom has faced increasing scrutiny over its human rights record. The spotlight has fallen on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who initially promised an agenda of reform, after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the unfolding humanitarian disaster in neighboring Yemen.

In 2019, the kingdom executed a record number of prisoners, despite the Crown Prince's promise to curb the use of the death penalty.

Amnesty International and other rights groups have called for al-Hathloul's immediate release, and said she has been tortured and sexually abused while in detention.

"In prison, Loujain has suffered torture, sexual abuse and solitary confinement -- compounding the fact that she has been deprived of her freedom unjustly for almost two years now," Maalouf said. "It is high time the authorities not only drop these ludicrous charges but also ensure independent and impartial investigations into her treatment in detention, and hold those responsible accountable for their actions. This is the only course of action that would lend some credibility to the authorities' reform drive."