U.N. rights boss seeks freedom for Saudi women activists

By Stephanie Nebehay
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends a session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) - U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called on Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to release women activists allegedly tortured in detention after authorities accused them of harming the country's interests.

Activists have named 10 Saudi women held for their campaigning, voicing fears that they could face harsh sentences.

Saudi Arabia's public prosecutor is preparing the trials of detainees, identified by watchdog groups as women's rights activists, after completing its investigations, state news agency SPA said last Friday.

"Today, allow me to voice my concern at the apparently arbitrary arrest and detention, and alleged ill-treatment or torture, of several women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia," Bachelet said in a speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

"The persecution of peaceful activists would clearly contradict the spirit of the country's proclaimed new reforms," she added.

The Saudi deputy public prosecutor told Saudi-owned newspaper Alsharq Alawsat last week that his office had looked into media reports that the women were tortured and found no evidence, calling the reports "false".

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has introduced reforms that have reduced discrimination, such as the lifting of the driving ban for women.

But activists say women who led such campaigns remain behind bars and that some have been tortured since their arrest in May.

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights, in a report issued in Geneva on Monday, that some Saudi activists have been subjected to torture including electrocution, flogging, whipping, and sexual assault.

European countries will urge Saudi Arabia on Thursday to release activists and cooperate with a U.N.-led probe into the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in the first rebuke of the kingdom at the Human Rights Council, diplomats and campaigners told Reuters.

Iceland has led the unprecedented initiative, winning support from European countries and possibly delegations from other regions for censure of the absolute monarchy, which is among the forum's 47 member states.

"This initiative at the UN Human Rights Council offers a rare opportunity for states to take a strong public stand against the catalogue of human rights violations by the government of Saudi Arabia," Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement on Wednesday.

"States who stay silent risk abdicating responsibility at a crucial moment and sending a dangerous message that Saudi Arabia can continue to commit egregious abuses without being held to account,” she said.

Khashoggi, a critic and Washington Post columnist, was murdered at the Saudi consultate in Istanbul on Oct 2. U.S. intelligence agencies believe the crown prince ordered the operation, which Riyadh has denied.

In June 2018, the public prosecutor said the women detainees had admitted to communicating and cooperating with individuals and organisations opposed to the kingdom, state news agency SPA reported.


(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, additional reporting by Stephen Kalin in Riyadh, editing by Tom Miles, William Maclean)