GENEVA: Three dozen countries, including all 28 EU members, called on Saudi Arabia on Thursday (Mar 7) to release 10 activists and cooperate with a UN-led investigation into the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its Istanbul consulate.
It was the first rebuke of the kingdom at the UN Human Rights Council since it was set up in 2006, and came amid growing international concern about alleged Saudi violations of basic freedoms such as freedom of expression.
"It is a success for Europe to be united on this," an envoy of an EU country told Reuters.
The unprecedented joint statement, also backed by Canada and Australia but not the United States, was read out by Harald Aspelund, Iceland's Ambassador to the United Nations 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.
Activists can and should play "a vital role in the process of reform which the Kingdom is pursuing," it said.
Saudi ambassador Abdulaziz M.O. Alwasil stressed its efforts to uphold human rights but called for "dealing with the human rights issues in the Kingdom in an impartial and objective manner, far away from what is rumoured in some media and NGOs".
The Saudi mission tweeted a summary of his remarks to the Council, saying he underlined "the right of sovereign countries to deal with issues affecting their security in accordance with their national laws and international obligations".
The joint statement called for the release of Loujain Al-Hathloul, Eman Al-Nafjan, Aziza Al-Yousef, Nassima Al-Sadah, Samar Badawi, Nouf Abdelaziz, Hatoon Al-Fassi, Mohammed Al-Bajadi, Amal Al-Harbi and Shadan al-Anezi.
Activists allege that 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.
The Saudi deputy public prosecutor told Saudi-owned newspaper Alsharq Alawsat last week that his office had looked into media reports that the women were tortured and found no evidence, calling the reports "false".
The EU and other sponsoring countries said they "condemn in the strongest possible terms" the killing of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct 2.
"The circumstances of Mr Khashoggi's death reaffirm the need to protect journalists and to uphold the right to freedom of expression around the world," the text said.
It called for cooperation with an inquiry led by Agnes Callamard, the U.N. 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.
Turkey has not yet shared its police and forensic reports on the Khashoggi case, which authorities had pledged to do during her mission there last month, Callamard added.