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EU, Canada, Australia issue rare rebuke against Saudi Arabia at UN rights forum

Mohammed Al-Shaikh, AFP | File picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi taken on December 15, 2014.

Three dozen countries, including all 28 EU members, called on Saudi Arabia on Thursday to release 10 activists and cooperate with a UN-led investigation into the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its Istanbul consulate.

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The rare censure was the first rebuke of the oil-rich Gulf kingdom at the UN Human Rights Council since it was set up in 2006 and came amid growing international concern about Saudi violations of basic freedoms such as freedom of expression.

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

The unprecedented joint statement, also backed by Canada and Australia but not the US, was read out by Harald Aspelund, Iceland's ambassador to the UN in Geneva.

"We are particularly concerned about the use of the counter-terrorism law and other national security provisions against individuals peacefully exercising their rights and freedoms," Aspelund said, reading the text.

It called on Saudi authorities "to disclose all information available" about its own investigation while cooperating with separate UN inquiries into the death of Khashoggi, who was killed on October 2 in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Riyadh slams ‘interference in domestic affairs

The New York-based group, Human Rights Watch said the statement was "the first-ever collective action" at the council on rights in Saudi Arabia, which had successfully evaded criticism at the UN body.

HRW's Geneva director John Fisher called it "a landmark step toward justice" and urged "more scrutiny" of the country.

Responding to the statement, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the UN in Geneva condemned the use of "joint statements for political causes."

"Interference in domestic affairs under the guise of defending human rights is in fact an attack on our sovereignty," ambassador Abdulaziz Alwasil said.

Free women activists

The joint statement called on Saudi Arabia to release 10 detained activists, including prominent Saudi human rights figures such as Loujain Al-Hathloul, Eman Al-Nafjan, Aziza Al-Yousef and Samar Badawi.

Activists allege that the jailed women activists, including those who campaigned for the right to drive, have been subjected to electric shocks, flogging, sexual assault and other forms of torture.

On Wednesday, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet also called on Saudi Arabia to release the women’s rights activists.

'An important step'

The EU and other sponsoring countries said they "condemn in the strongest possible terms" the killing of Khashoggi and reaffirmed “the need to protect journalists and to uphold the right to freedom of expression around the world.

It also called on the kingdom to cooperate with an inquiry led by Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions.

"It's an important step in ensuring accountability. The international community has a collective responsibility to highlight human rights violations in a country that until now had managed to escape that kind of scrutiny," Callamard told Reuters.

She added that she welcomed the call for cooperation with her investigation as the Saudis had to date not responded to her requests for meetings.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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