West urges Saudi Arabia to release women activists, prosecute Khashoggi killers

GENEVA (Reuters) - Dozens of Western countries called on Tuesday for the release of women activists detained in Saudi Arabia and for those behind the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi to be brought to justice.

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At least a dozen prominent women’s rights activists were arrested in Saudi Arabia in 2018 as it lifted a ban on women driving cars, a step that many of the detainees had long campaigned for.

Germany, speaking on behalf of the European Union at the United Nations Human Rights Council, decried Saudi Arabia’s “prolonged detentions of women rights defenders”, including Loujain al-Hathloul.

Several of the arrested women say they have suffered torture and sexual assault in detention, accusations which Saudi officials reject.

“We stress the need for full accountability and transparent prosecution of those involved in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi,” added Germany’s ambassador, Michael Freiherr von Ungern-Sternberg.

A Saudi court this month jailed eight people for between seven and 20 years for the murder of the journalist in 2018 at its consulate in Istanbul. The trial drew criticism from a U.N. investigator and from human rights campaigners who said the masterminds of the murder remained free. [nL8N2G4395]

Denmark’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Morten Jespersen, read out a joint statement on behalf of 29 countries -- including Australia, Britain and Canada -- urging the kingdom to “release all political detainees” and voicing concern at the detention of “at least five women activists”.

They include al-Hathloul, Nouf Abdelaziz, Samar Badawi, Nassima Al-Sadah, Mohammed Al-Bajadi, and Miyaa Al-Zahrani, the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) said in a statement.

John Fisher of Human Rights Watch denounced Saudi Arabia’s “brutal targeting of defenders and dissidents” and urged the release of the women activists and “others arbitrarily detained”.

Separately, the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) said it was alarmed by the “deteriorating” conditions for Ethiopian migrants detained in Saudi Arabia and was seeking access to those in need of urgent aid.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Gareth Jones