October 12, 2018 / 12:07 PM / 2 months ago

U.N. experts say Saudi Arabia must release women's rights activists

GENEVA (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia must immediately and unconditionally release all women it has detained for campaigning for human rights, officials mandated by the United Nations said on Friday.

Saudi authorities have detained more than a dozen women’s rights activists since May. Most campaigned for the right to drive - which was granted in June - and an end to the kingdom’s male guardianship system, which requires women to obtain the consent of a male relative for major decisions.

Friday’s statement, from experts who report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, called for the release of six women.

They include one, Israa Al-Ghomgham, who is facing possible execution, a threat the experts called “reprehensible”.

They said they were in touch with Saudi authorities.

The Saudi mission in Geneva did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Separately, Riyadh is facing increasing international pressure to explain the whereabouts of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi critic of the government, who went missing after last week entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to get marriage documents.

Saudi authorities have dismissed as baseless allegations that he was killed inside the building and removed.

The U.N. experts said Al-Ghomgham, who belongs to Saudi’s Shia minority, was being tried on charges that appeared to lack legal bases in a court set up to handle terrorism-related cases, and had had no legal representation.

“It is reprehensible that Ms. Al-Ghomgham is facing the death penalty for asserting her fundamental human right to peaceful assembly. No one should ever be punished for exercising their most fundamental human rights, much less face the death penalty,” the U.N. experts said.

“We wish to remind the Saudi government of its obligation to protect and promote the rights of all human rights defenders.”

Women were facing particular risks for challenging stereotypes about their place in society, the experts added.

They said the five other women named - including two other prominent activists, Samar Badawi and Hatoon Al-Fassi - were all being held incommunicado.

Reporting by Tom Miles; editing by John Stonestreet

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