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G20 urged to hold Saudi Arabia accountable over human rights abuses

Human Rights Watch calls on Riyadh to allow UN experts access to attack sites in Yemen, and allow an independent body to investigate Jamal Khashoggi’s murder
Saudi Arabia's King Salman speaks via video link during a virtual G20 summit on 26 October (File photo/Saudi Royal Court/AFP)
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Washington

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged G20 member states to pressure Saudi Arabia into releasing activists detained unlawfully and provide accountability for past abuses ahead of a leaders summit scheduled to be held in the kingdom later this month.

The New York-based rights organisation said in a statement on Monday that the G20 presidency conferred an "undeserved mark of international prestige" on the rule of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman despite its "unrelenting assault on freedoms".

'G20 countries can make a difference and play a significant role in convincing Saudi Arabia to halt its human rights abuses'

Michael Page, HRW deputy Middle East director

"The G20 is bolstering the Saudi government’s well-funded publicity efforts to portray the country as ‘reforming’ despite a significant increase in repression since 2017," Michael Page, HRW deputy Middle East director, said in a statement.

"G20 countries can make a difference and play a significant role in convincing Saudi Arabia to halt its human rights abuses," he said.

As the current chair of the G20 major economies, Riyadh has tried to repair its image after global outrage at the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its Istanbul consulate, the detention of women’s rights activists and the war in Yemen.

Launching the #G20SaudiArabia campaign, HRW called for the unconditional release of Saudi human rights activists, including female activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Nassima al-Sadah and Nouf Abdulaziz as well as blogger Raif Badawi, journalist Salah Haidar and rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair.

Rights groups say some of the women, including Hathloul, were held in solitary confinement for months and subjected to abuse including electric shocks, flogging and sexual assault.

Riyadh censors critical speech at T20

In addition to the release of dissidents and activists, HRW also demanded Riyadh allow United Nations experts access to Yemen where they could assess attacks on civilians, and allow an independent and international body to investigate Khashoggi's murder and review Saudi court documents.

Riyadh has jailed eight people for between seven and 20 years in the case. MBS denied ordering Khashoggi’s killing but in 2019 acknowledged some personal accountability by saying it happened on his watch.

Saudi Arabia 'censored' criticism by top economist during T20 summit
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In the run-up to the G20 summit this November, Noble Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz criticised MBS over Khashoggi's murder and the imprisonment of women's rights activists.

During his address to the Think 20 (T20) summit last month, Stiglitz condemned the crown prince for allowing the individuals who killed the journalist to escape any criminal convictions. 

The economist then held a moment of silence "in memory of Khashoggi and in honour of all those women being held in prison" by the Saudi authorities.

The speech was immediately censored by Saudi Arabia.

Rights groups have been calling for attendees of the G20 to use their platforms to call for the release of political prisoners, while others have gone further to call for a boycott of the summit entirely.

US Democrats have urged Washington to consider a boycott of the summit, while the European parliament also called on the EU not to attend.