September 23, 2019 / 12:11 PM / 23 days ago

Western countries raise concerns over Saudi rights record

GENEVA (Reuters) - Two dozen mainly European countries voiced concern on Monday at alleged torture, unlawful detentions and unfair trials of critics, including women activists and journalists, in Saudi Arabia.

The empty seats for the delegation of Saudi Arabia are seen during a session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, September 23, 2019. REUTERS/Marina Depetris

It was the second joint statement criticizing the kingdom read out at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva in six months, following the first censure of Saudi Arabia at the forum in March.

The new statement urged Saudi authorities to establish the truth about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in October and ensure the perpetrators were held to account.

Fifteen European Union members, including Britain and Germany, were among the signatories, as well as Canada, New Zealand, and Peru, diplomats said. France, Italy and Spain did not sign.

There was no immediate response from the Saudi delegation, which is among the U.N. rights council’s 47 member states but was absent when the statement was read out.

The kingdom has regularly denied allegations of torture and unfair detention.

The joint statement acknowledged Saudi reforms, including the announcement last month that restrictions on the rights of women to travel will be lifted.

“However, we remain deeply concerned at the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. Civil society actors in Saudi Arabia still face persecution and intimidation,” Australia’s ambassador Sally Mansfield said, reading out the statement.

“We are concerned at reports of torture, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, unfair trials and harassment of individuals engaged in promoting and defending human rights, their families and colleagues,” she said.

Lina al-Hathloul later appealed for the release of her sister Loujain, a prominent women’s rights activist who had campaigned for an end to a ban on women driving. Loujain was jailed in May 2018, weeks before the kingdom lifted the ban.

“She was eager to engage with the government to improve the rights of fellow women citizens. Yet instead of considering her as a partner they labeled her a traitor, tortured her,” Lina told the Geneva forum.

“I am here today despite the high risk of reprisals to Loujain, our family and myself to call on all states and this Council to demand the Saudi government immediately and unconditionally release my sister,” she said.

Agnes Callamard, the U.N. expert on extrajudicial executions worldwide, said in a report last June that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other senior officials should be investigated over Khashoggi’s murder given what she called credible evidence against them.

In Riyadh, a minister rejected the report at the time as having nothing new and containing “baseless allegations”. The Saudi public prosecutor has indicted 11 suspects for the crime, including five who could face the death penalty.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Kevin Liffey and David Clarke

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