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Saudi Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman arrives to attend the first meeting of the defense ministers and officials of the 41-member Saudi-led Muslim counter-terrorism alliance in the capital Riyadh on November 26, 2017. © 2017 Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

(Geneva) – Saudi Arabia should release all political dissidents and women’s rights activists, provide accountability for past abuses, and end persistent discrimination against women, 29 countries said today. The statement, delivered by Denmark at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, noted that while Saudi Arabia has made some reforms on women’s rights and limited use of the death penalty against child offenders in recent years, the overall human rights situation remains a matter of concern.

Under the government effectively headed by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi authorities have arbitrarily detained dozens of political dissidents, human rights activists, and others since 2017. Countries at the Human Rights Council should support the joint statement, which is a rare and significant opportunity to press Saudi Arabia over its human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said. The statement remains open for further endorsement until two weeks after the session, scheduled to end on October 6, 2020.

“Saudi Arabia would like the world to forget about its ongoing arbitrary detention of dozens of political dissidents and human rights activists, but the joint statement sends a strong signal that Saudi Arabia needs to halt its abusive treatment of these individuals,” said John Fisher, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch. “Saudi Arabia’s aspiring membership in the Human Rights Council is at odds with its record of impunity for torture and other abuses in recent years.”

Two previous joint statements have been delivered on Saudi Arabia at the Human Rights Council, one by Iceland in March 2019 and another by Australia in September 2019. Saudi Arabia has failed to address serious human rights concerns raised in those previous joint statements, and continued council attention is needed, Human Rights Watch said.

In a public joint letter addressed to foreign ministers earlier this month, 30 nongovernmental groups detailed Saudi Arabia’s continued detention, persecution, and harassment of human rights defenders, new waves of arrests, allegations of torture, ill-treatment, and deaths in detention, and its continued climate of impunity.

At the council’s June 2019 session, the special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions presented a damning report following her investigation into the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. She said that the killing reflected a broader crackdown against human rights defenders, journalists, and dissenters, as well as a culture of impunity at the highest levels. Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the Saudi authorities’ campaign of repression against independent dissidents and activists, including waves of mass arrests, marred by lack of due process and by credible torture allegations. Numerous Saudi dissidents and activists, including prominent women’s rights defenders, remain in detention while they and others face unfair trials on charges tied solely to their public criticism of the government or peaceful human rights work. In September, Human Rights Watch issued a news release expressing concern at Saudi Arabia’s incommunicado detention of women’s rights activists and other defenders, prison overcrowding, including in the context of Covid-19, denial of access to health care, and deaths in custody under suspicious circumstances.

“Council members should be subject to more scrutiny, not less,” Fisher said. “We urge the council to keep Saudi Arabia on its agenda – and create a monitoring mechanism – until we see an end to the brutal targeting of defenders and dissidents, the release of women’s rights activists and others arbitrarily detained, and genuine reform.”

Countries signing the joint statement on Saudi Arabia include Australia, Belgium, Canada, Costa Rica, Croatia, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Marshall Islands, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

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