UN panel urges Saudi Arabia to stop torture, free activists

UN Committee against Torture accuses Riyadh of 'torture, sexual harassment and other ill-treatments' against activists.

    Saudi journalist Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 [Lefteris Pitarakis/AP]
    Saudi journalist Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 [Lefteris Pitarakis/AP]

    A United Nations human rights watchdog urged Saudi authorities to free more than a dozen rights activists detained in the kingdom, alleging some had been tortured or mistreated during interrogation.

    The UN Committee against Torture, in a letter dated Tuesday and posted online, advanced "serious allegations" that activists have been detained without charge in Dhahban prison near Jeddah since May.

    It said activists - including Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sada, Mohammad al-Rabe'a and Ibrahim Modeimigh - suffered "torture, sexual harassment and other forms of ill-treatment during interrogation".

    The panel called for their release and that of six other activists, including blogger Raif Badawi. Badawi has been publicly flogged for expressing dissenting opinions online and is serving a 10-year sentence handed down in 2014 for breaking technology laws and insulting Islam.

    The panel of 10 independent experts also sought information on whether an impartial investigation is under way into allegations that "high-level officials were involved in the torture and extrajudicial execution of Jamal Khashoggi".

    Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and critic of the nation's de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2. Riyadh has denied that Prince Mohammed ordered the killing.

    Panel asks for information

    Given the serious nature of the cases involving "reprisals against and harassment, intimidation and arrest of human rights defenders and journalists", the UN panel asked the kingdom to provide information within 90 days.

    Saudi Arabia should "acknowledge, in law and in practice, the legitimacy of peaceful criticism and advocacy", it said.

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    There was no immediate comment from Saudi authorities.

    Riyadh has previously denied using torture and said arrests were made on the basis of suspicious contacts with foreign entities and offering financial support to "enemies overseas".

    On Khashoggi, the panel asked whether Saudi Arabia would allow international experts to be involved in the investigation, as requested by both the UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet and Turkey.

    Saudi Arabia, which has joined the UN treaty banning torture, is obliged to "ensure that all perpetrators are prosecuted and to ensure that the relatives of the victim obtain redress", the panel said.

    US senators briefed by the CIA have said they are certain Prince Mohammed was responsible for Khashoggi's killing - a view US President Donald Trump is sceptical of.

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    SOURCE: News agencies