U.S. urges Saudis to review cases of 'prisoners of conscience'

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The flag of Saudi Arabia flies above the Saudi Arabia embassy near the Watergate Complex in Washington, U.S., February 26, 2021. REUTERS/Tom Brenner

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  • Calls on Riyadh to lift curbs on women's rights activists
  • Issue raised during U.N. Human Rights Council debate
  • Saudi delegation raps 'politicisation' of rights issues

GENEVA, March 8 (Reuters) - The United States urged ally Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to review cases of "prisoners of conscience" and lift travel bans and other restrictions imposed on women's rights activists previously released from jail.

The rare U.S. intervention on the matter came with U.S.-Saudi ties strained over a range of issues including the Yemen war, the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, and energy markets.

Iceland and Luxembourg also zeroed in on the Saudi human rights record during a debate held on Tuesday at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

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U.S. Ambassador Michele Taylor called on Riyadh, a pivotal security partner of Washington against Iran in the Gulf region, to resolve cases of "prisoners of conscience" - a term referring to political detainees, though she did not name any.

Saudi authorities have detained senior royals, activists, intellectuals and clerics. Saudi officials deny there are any political prisoners in the kingdom.

"We urge Saudi Arabia to fully resolve cases of prisoners of conscience and to lift travel bans and other restrictions on previously released women's rights activists," Taylor told the Geneva forum in a speech on what was International Women's Day.

Luxembourg Ambassador Marc Bichler said that "repression" of freedom of expression, association and assembly for activists was intensifying in Saudi Arabia. The curtailment of civil and political rights was accompanied by reprisals and unlawful detentions of activists and journalists, he said.

Saudi Arabia's delegation said it regretted what it called "the politicisation" of human rights issues.

"No individuals have been arrested or imprisoned for exercising the right to freedom of speech or defending human rights. These are unfounded allegations," a Saudi diplomat, whose name was not immediately available, told the forum.

Regarding women's rights, he said: "This is the area of rights where we have seen the most sweeping reform at various levels including legislative, administrative and judicial..., taking steps to ensure the greater empowerment of women and their participation in key sectors of society."

Last June, Riyadh released two women's rights activists detained nearly three years earlier after they had served their time, London-based Saudi rights group ALQST said. read more

More than a dozen women's rights activists were detained on suspicion of harming Saudi interests, before and after the kingdom in 2018 lifted a ban on women driving as part of social reforms accompanied by a crackdown on dissent that has also netted clerics and intellectuals.

Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent women's activist, was released in February 2021 after serving half of her custodial sentence on broad cybercrime and counterterrorism charges. She remains subject to a five-year travel ban.

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Reporting and writing by Stephanie Nebehay with additional reporting by Aziz Yaakoubi in Riyadh Editing by Mark Heinrich

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