GENEVA, MARCH 7 – A joint statement by 36 countries on March 7, 2019 calling on Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights record was a landmark step toward justice and accountability, Human Rights Watch said today. The statement, delivered by Iceland at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, condemns the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, urges an end to Saudi Arabia’s use of counterterrorism regulations to target dissidents and human rights activists, and calls for the release of Saudi women’s rights activists detained beginning in May 2018. Italy was among the countries that joined the statement.
The joint statement was the first in which members states had ever confronted the kingdom over its human rights record in the United Nations Human Rights Council, where Saudi Arabia is one of 47 members. The statement reflected concerns also raised by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, who in her report to the council on March 6 noted that the persecution of peaceful activists clearly contradicts the spirit of Saudi Arabia’s proclaimed new reforms, and urged the released of the women’s rights defenders. It urged Saudi Arabia to cooperate with an inquiry into the murder led by a United Nations expert, Agnès Callamard. She is to submit her findings to the Human Rights Council in June.
On May 15, 2018, just weeks before the Saudi authorities lifted the ban on women driving on June 24, authorities began arresting prominent women’s rights activists and accused several of them of grave crimes like treason that appear to be directly related to their activism.
On March 1, Saudi Arabia’s public prosecution agency announced that the women’s rights activists would face charges and be put on trial. Human rights organizations began reporting in November that Saudi interrogators tortured at least four of the women, including by administering electric shocks, whipping the women on their thighs, and sexually harassing and assaulting them.
Saudi Arabia came under intense criticism in 2018 following the October 2 murder of the prominent Saudi journalist Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by Saudi agents. After weeks of denials and obfuscations, Saudi Arabia admitted to Khashoggi’s murder and announced the arrest of 18 people and the firing of senior officials. The Public Prosecution eventually charged 11 people in connection with the murder, including five against whom it is seeking the death penalty. (@OnuItalia)