UN member states must demand release of women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia

States should take a clear stand against human rights violations in Saudi Arabia by joining a UN Human Rights Council statement addressing the government’s crackdown on peaceful activists, including a group of detained women human rights defenders known to have been tortured and sexually abused, said Amnesty International.

The crucial statement, due to be delivered at a Human Rights Council session on Thursday, is expected to address Saudi Arabia’s use of counter-terrorism legislation to persecute people peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly, and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

“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.  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,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“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.”

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
Heba Morayef, MENA Regional Director at Amnesty International

As a member of the Human Rights Council, Saudi Arabia is required to uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights. Yet the government has consistently failed to implement key recommendations to address its dire human rights record.

Last week, Saudi Arabia’s Public Prosecution announced that it had concluded its investigations into the cases of a group of human rights defenders, including women activists, who have been detained without charge since May 2018, announcing they will soon face charges and be referred to court.

The charges listed by the prosecutor are the same as those the prosecution said several women human rights defenders confessed to last year. At least 10 human rights defenders, including several of the women activists were tortured including by being sexually abused and subjected to other forms of ill-treatment during the first three months of their detention last year. The activists were detained incommunicado during that period, with no access to their family or lawyers. Women human rights defenders detained in Saudi Arabia last year include Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sada, Shadan al-Anezi and Nouf Abdulaziz.

Saudi Arabia’s authorities have repeatedly denied that any of the activists were tortured.

“The Saudi Arabian authorities have an abysmal track record when it comes to fair trials. Pending their release, Saudi Arabia must urgently grant independent monitoring bodies immediate and unfettered access to the detained activists to investigate these shocking torture allegations,” said Heba Morayef.

The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is another emblematic example of the extreme lengths to which the Saudi Arabian authorities have been prepared to go to crush peaceful dissent.

The government of Saudi Arabia has also severely restricted freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, detained human rights defenders, religious clerics and critics and called for the execution of activists and religious clerics facing grossly unfair trials. Despite limited reforms, women continue to face systemic discrimination in law and practice under the repressive guardianship system.

“The international community has a duty to hold Saudi Arabia to account for its grim human rights record. Human Right Council members have a particular responsibility to take strong and collective action as a first step towards accountability for Saudi Arabia’s litany of appalling abuses,” said Heba Morayef.