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US urges Saudi Arabia to review cases of 'prisoners of conscience'

US ambassador uses International Women's Day to issue rare intervention into restrictions of previously-released women's rights activists
Saudi Arabia's delegation to the UNHRC said it regretted what it called "the politicisation" of human rights issues.
Saudi Arabia's delegation to the UNHRC said it regretted what it called "the politicisation" of human rights issues (AFP/File photo)

The United States on Tuesday urged Saudi Arabia to review cases of "prisoners of conscience" and lift travel bans and other restrictions imposed on women's rights activists previously released from jail.

During a debate held at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Michele Taylor, the US ambassador to the Geneva-based body, called on Riyadh, a traditional ally and US security partner, to resolve cases of "prisoners of conscience" - a term referring to political detainees, though she did not name any.

"We urge Saudi Arabia to fully resolve cases of prisoners of conscience and to lift travel bans and other restrictions on previously released women's rights activists," Taylor said in a speech on what was International Women's Day, without elaborating further.

Iceland and Luxembourg also called out Saudi Arabia's human rights record, with Luxembourg's Ambassador Marc Bichler saying that "repression" of freedom of expression, association and assembly for activists was intensifying in Saudi Arabia.

Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom's de facto ruler, Saudi authorities have detained activists, clerics and royal family members in a sweeping crackdown on dissent over the past several years.

The detentions have cast a spotlight on the human rights record of the kingdom, an absolute monarchy which has also faced intense criticism over the 2018 murder of journalist and MEE columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Saudi officials deny there are any political prisoners in the kingdom. 

Saudi Arabia’s prisoners of conscience
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More than a dozen women's rights activists were detained on suspicion of harming Saudi interests, before and after the kingdom in 2018 lifted a ban on women driving as part of social reforms - accompanied by a crackdown on dissent that has also netted clerics and intellectuals.

Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent women's activist, was released in February 2021 after serving half of her custodial sentence on broad cybercrime and counterterrorism charges. She remains subject to a five-year travel ban.

Then last June, Riyadh released two women's rights activists detained nearly three years earlier after they had served their time, London-based Saudi rights group ALQST said.

The rare US intervention on the matter came as US-Saudi ties are strained over a range of issues including the Saudi-led coalition's war in Yemen, the killing of Khashoggi, and the current volatility in global energy markets.

Saudi Arabia's delegation to the UNHRC said it regretted what it called "the politicisation" of human rights issues.

"No individuals have been arrested or imprisoned for exercising the right to freedom of speech or defending human rights. These are unfounded allegations," a Saudi diplomat, whose name was not immediately available, told the forum.

"This is the area of rights where we have seen the most sweeping reform at various levels including legislative, administrative and judicial... taking steps to ensure the greater empowerment of women and their participation in key sectors of society," the diplomat said, referring to women's rights.