Over 30 countries sign statement criticising Saudi Arabia’s rights record

UN human rights commissioner voices concern over arrest and detention of peaceful activists

Two unnamed Saudi sisters, aged 18 and 20, stand in front of a view of the building which houses the local Saudi consulate in Hong Kong on February 22nd. Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty

Ahead of today’s celebrations of International Women’s Day, 36 countries, including all EU member states, signed a statement criticising Saudi Arabia’s rights record.

The text, adopted during a Geneva meeting of the UN Human Rights Council, calls on Riyadh to release women activists and co-operate with a UN investigation into the October 2nd murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom's Istanbul consulate.

"It is a success for Europe to be united on this," an unnamed EU envoy told Reuters.

UN human rights commissioner Michelle Bachelet has voiced concern over "the apparently arbitrary arrest and detention, and alleged ill-treatment or torture, of several women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia".

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The persecution of peaceful activists would clearly contradict the spirit of the country’s proclaimed new reforms, she said.

Detention and sentencing

In Saudi Arabia, six women detained last May are set to go on trial for destabilising the kingdom.

Ten others were sentenced earlier to terms of imprisonment for online rights advocacy and ties to activist husbands and brothers. A death sentence has been lifted on Israa al-Ghomgham, a non-violent human rights defender of the Saudi Shia minority who was accused of terrorism.

While the Saudi deputy public prosecutor has said reports of women detainees having been tortured are false, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights reports that the six who led the campaign to end the driving ban for women have been whipped, waterboarded, given electric shocks and sexually assaulted.

The most prominent, Loujain al-Hathloul (29) was abducted from Dubai and taken to a Saudi jail.

She had called not only for the right to drive but also for the abolition of male guardianship, a pillar of the Saudi social order.

This renders Saudi woman minors for life, unable to access education and health care, open a bank account, marry, divorce, or travel without the consent of a father, brother, husband or son.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, who barricaed herself in Bangkok airport hotel room toprevent herself from bewing deported back to Kuwait, arrives at Toronto Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Canada after being granted asylum status in the country on January 12th, 2019. Photograph: Reuters

Stranded women

Abuse of the detainees has, reportedly, been overseen by Saud al-Qahtani, a confidant of Saudi crown prince Mohamed bin Salman.

Qahtani was formally dismissed for involvement in the Khashoggi murder but remains an influential actor in Riyadh.

Khashoggi’s brutal death has stirred international interest in Saudi behaviour, including abduction and detention of women fleeing guardianship and abusive families.

Two Saudi sisters, aged 18 and 20, who are stranded in Hong Kong, have been allowed to to stay there until April 8th while they negotiate asylum in a third country.

Their tickets were cancelled and passports revoked and they are in hiding to avoid abduction. Two other sisters, Areej (28) and Ashwaq Hammoud (30) are detained in Turkey after trying to flee.

In January, 18-year-old Rahaf al-Qunun made a highly publicised escape and won refugee status in Canada.

US citizen Bethany Vierra (31), who married and divorced a Saudi businessman, is trapped with her daughter in the kingdom, still under her ex-husband's guardianship, Ms Vierra cannot operate her bank account, leave the country or seek legal aid.

Muslim women across the world face growing restrictions due to oil-rich Saudi Arabia’s export through mosques, preachers and schools of its puritan Wahhabi ideology and ultra-conservative mores.

Moderate Muslims have been overborne by Wahhabism while the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaeda, Islamic State and other extremist groups have adapted Wahhabism to achieve their political ends.