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UN urges Saudi Arabia to release activists

World News : The top United Nations human rights official called on Saudi Arabia on Thursday to release activists she said had been arrested for peacefully demanding freedoms, halt the use of lashings and investigate their alleged ill-treatment.

Navi Pillay, in a rare statement critical of the kingdom, currently an elected member of the U.N. Human Rights Council, voiced dismay at the conviction and “harsh sentencing” of Walid Abu Al-Khair.

The prominent Saudi rights lawyer was sentenced to 15 years on Sunday on charges that included seeking to undermine the state and insulting the judiciary.

“Abu Al-Khair’s case is a clear illustration of the continuing trend of harassment of Saudi human rights defenders, several of whom have been convicted for peacefully promoting human rights,” Pillay said.

“I urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release all human rights defenders held in connection with their peaceful advocacy of human rights,” she said.

Abu al-Khair had been on trial on sedition charges that included breaking allegiance to King Abdullah, showing disrespect for authorities, creating an unauthorized association and inciting public opinion.

Human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia have been charged with “offences defined in a vague manner in counter-terrorism legislation”, said Pillay, a former U.N. war crimes judge.

Abu al-Khair, the founder and director of an organization named the Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, was critical of a new anti-terrorism law passed by Saudi Arabia at the start of the year which was widely condemned by rights activists as a tool to stifle dissent.

“He is not alleged to have been involved in any violent activity but only for expressing his opinion,” Pillay said, noting that he was tried in the Specialised Penal Court.  Agencies

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