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Saudi Arabia rebuked at UN over Khashoggi murder and rights abuses

Several European countries urged Riyadh to release detained women's rights activists, citing reports of torture, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances
Saudi Arabia was condemned for the third time since 2018 after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi (AFP)
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Washington

Dozens of countries condemned Saudi Arabia before the UN Human Rights Council on Tuesday over serious violations and demanded accountability for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In a relatively rare rebuke of the oil-rich kingdom before the UN's top rights body, Denmark's Ambassador Carsten Staur read out a statement on behalf of 29 states demanding justice for Khashoggi, who was killed and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. 

Several European countries urged Saudi Arabia to be transparent about the killing and hold "all those responsible accountable".

Khashoggi - a royal family insider turned critic - was killed and dismembered at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, in a case that tarnished the reputation of de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

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The former columnist for Middle East Eye and the Washington Post was strangled and his body cut into pieces by a 15-man Saudi squad inside the consulate, according to Turkish officials. His remains have not been found.

Riyadh has described the murder as a "rogue" operation, but both the CIA and Agnes Callamard, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, have linked bin Salman to the killing, a charge the kingdom vehemently denies.

Tuesday's statement, which was hailed by several human rights groups, also highlighted a wide range of other serious rights violations in Saudi Arabia.

"We remain deeply concerned by reports of torture, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, and detainees being denied access to essential medical treatment and contact with their families," a statement from the UN's top rights body read. 

Staur said the countries welcomed recent reforms such as restricting flogging and the death penalty against minors but stressed that journalists, activists and others still face persecution, detention and intimidation.

'Equals to men'

The statement also echoed the criticism voiced by UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet over the "arbitrary detention" of a number of women human rights activists in the country.

She told the opening of the council session on Monday that the detained women had simply requested to "be empowered to make their own choices, as equals to men", insisting that "they should be released without delay".

Several rights activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, have been detained since 2018 following a sweeping crackdown on dissent.

Hathloul was apprehended in the United Arab Emirates and deported to Saudi Arabia weeks before the much-publicised lifting of the kingdom's driving ban on women in June 2018 - a right she had long championed.

Saudi Arabia's representative hit back on Tuesday insisting "the detention of any women has nothing to do with their right to exercise the freedom of expression, but for violations of the standing laws".

"Their rights are fully respected as detainees," he said, adding that they were guaranteed a fair trial.

Staur highlighted that at least five women's rights activists were arrested and remain in detention. 

The statement also urged dramatic improvements as Riyadh strives to obtain a seat on the 47-member Human Rights Council.