UN demands Saudi Arabia release jailed human rights activists
United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet on Wednesday called on Saudi Arabia to release a group of detained women human rights defenders who have been allegedly tortured and sexually abused in detention.
"The persecution of peaceful activists would clearly contradict the spirit of the country's proclaimed new reforms," Bachelet said in a speech to the UN Human Rights Council.
Her call comes amid growing pressure on Riyadh to free the jailed activists, with the Human Rights Council set to issue an official statement demanding their release.
The joint statement by European countries will also urge Saudi Arabia to cooperate with a UN-led probe into the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and is the first rebuke of Riyadh at the Human Rights Council.
Iceland has driven the initiative forward and won support from European countries and delegations from other regions in criticism of Saudi Arabia, a member of the 47-nation forum.
"We believe that members of the Council have a particular responsibility to lead by example and put on the Council’s agenda human rights issues that warrant our collective attention," an Icelandic diplomat told Reuters on Tuesday.
Human Rights Watch welcomed what would be the first collective action at the council addressing human rights concerns in Saudi Arabia.
"No state is above the law," John Fisher, HRW's Geneva director, said.
Amnesty International also backed the UN Human Rights Council initiative and urged UN member states to show their support for the move.
"States, including key allies of Saudi Arabia, must use the joint statement to demand the immediate and unconditional release of the group of detained women human rights defenders and all others who have been detained solely for their criticism of the government," the group said.
Countries that remain silent risk sending a "dangerous message" that Saudi Arabia can continue to commit egregious abuses without being held accountable.
UN human rights experts said this week that Saudi Arabia was using its counter-terror laws to silence dissent and women's rights activists.
More than a dozen activists were arrested in Saudi Arabia in May last year in a sweeping crackdown on campaigners.
Many of them were accused of undermining security and aiding enemies of the state.
Some were subsequently released but others who remained in detention have been subjected to caning, electrocution and sexual assault, their family members say.