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  • U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Bachelet attends a session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

    U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Bachelet attends a session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. | Photo: Reuters

Published 6 March 2019

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

United Nations Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet called on Saudi Arabia Wednesday to release women activists allegedly tortured in detention after authorities accused them of harming the country's interests.

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"The persecution of peaceful activists would clearly contradict the spirit of the country's proclaimed new reforms," Bachelet said in a speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

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. Activists have named 10 Saudi women being held for their campaigning and expressed fears that they could face harsh sentences.

"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."

The Saudi deputy public prosecutor told the state-owned newspaper Alsharq Alawsat last week that his office found no evidence when they had looked into media reports that the women were tortured, 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. However, activists say the women who led such campaigns remain behind bars and that some have been tortured since their arrests in May.

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

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European countries are expected to urge Saudi Arabia Thursday to release activists and cooperate with a U.N.-led probe into the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — marking its first rebuke of the kingdom by the Human Rights Council, diplomats and campaigners told Reuters.

Iceland has led the unprecedented initiative, winning over 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,"  Amnesty International’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa Heba Morayef said 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 added.

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

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

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