G20 women's forum urged to press hosts Saudi on rights

DUBAI (Reuters) - Rights groups want participants in a G20 women’s meeting starting in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to seek the release of detained female activists and call out the kingdom for its record on rights.

Minister of trade and investment Majed Al-Kassabi attends a virtual Women 20 (W20) summit to discuss a more equitable future for women, amid rights groups criticism over female detainees, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia October 21, 2020. REUTERS/Mohammed Benmansour

As current chair of the Group of 20 major economies, Riyadh has tried to improve its image after global outrage at the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi at its Istanbul consulate.

“[Saudi] continues to violate basic women’s human rights and muzzle voices that demand equality,” Amnesty International said ahead of the two-day virtual W20 meeting.

“Your participation in the W20 must not be used in Saudi Arabia’s whitewashing of its international reputation while they continue to jail peaceful women activists.”

Saudi authorities arrested at least a dozen female activists in 2018. Rights group say at least three faced abuses including solitary confinement, electric shocks, flogging and sexual assault.

Officials deny torture. Few charges have been made public, but those against some of the women include contacting foreign journalists, diplomats and rights groups.

Amnesty and Human Rights Watch urged participants to raise the women’s cases.

Event organisers stressed their independence. “It is in no way affiliated with the government of Saudi Arabia, or any government or business interest,” they said in a statement.

De facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has introduced reforms enabling women to drive, travel without permission and improve access to jobs.

But rights group say more is needed as some aspects of the male guardianship system remain intact and the government recognises filial disobedience as a crime.

There has been increasing pressure on officials to boycott Saudi-led G20 events, which have largely been hosted virtually this year due to COVID-19.

On Wednesday more than 40 U.S. Congress members asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to withdraw from a November summit. The European Union parliament on Oct. 8 passed a resolution urging the bloc to downgrade its participation.

Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne