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U.N. human rights boss urges Saudi Arabia to allow free speech, assembly

FILE PHOTO: U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends a news conference at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, December 9, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

GENEVA (Reuters) - United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, in rare public comments on Saudi Arabia, said on Friday that people were unlawfully held in the kingdom and urged it to uphold freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly.

Bachelet, addressing the U.N. Human Rights Council where Saudi Arabia has observer status, welcomed the release earlier this month of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, adding: “although I regret that others continued to be unjustly detained”.

Hathloul campaigned for women’s right to drive and to end Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system that requires women to obtain permission of a male relative for certain decisions and travel. She spent nearly three years behind bars in a case that drew international condemnation, and remains forbidden to leave Saudi Arabia for five years.

Bachelet did not refer to the expected release by the Biden administration of a sensitive U.S. intelligence report on the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The European Union, in a speech by Portugal’s ambassador Rui Macieira, voiced concern at Saudi Arabia’s use of anti-terrorist and security bodies to try civilians and activists subjected to prolonged detention, including solitary confinement.

“Noting reforms to the penal system and a significant decrease in the use of capital punishment, the EU calls for further attention to the rights of migrant workers, to women’s rights and to the freedom of expression and of religion or belief,” he said.

Bachelet welcomed plans announced by Saudi authorities to adopt new legislation on family law and personal status.

“I urge the authorities to also establish legislative frameworks to uphold the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association for everyone in the Kingdom,” she said.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by John Revill and Peter Graff