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Press briefing notes on Syria and Saudi Arabia

Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Ravina Shamdasani
Location: Geneva
Date: 31 July 2018

(1) Syria

We strongly condemn the shocking attacks by ISIL in civilian-populated areas in As-Sweida in southwest Syria last Wednesday. We have received reports that more than 200 people were killed and injured in multiple attacks, including suicide bombings in As-Sweida City and in various villages in eastern and northeastern rural As-Sweida Governorate. Scores of ISIL militants also raided homes in at least eight villages in eastern and northeastern rural As-Sweida, shooting and killing civilians inside their homes and abducting women and children. We have received the names of at least 27 women and children who were reportedly taken hostage from Al-Shbiki village in eastern rural As-Sweida, although we believe the real number is likely to be much higher. According to eyewitnesses, ISIL fighters initially took women from a handful of houses from Al-Shbiki village and used them to knock on the doors of their neighbours, then killing and abducting more civilians in their homes. Photos of some of these abducted women were later tweeted, with threats to burn them alive if the Government did not cease military operations against ISIL in western Daraa Governorate and release ISIL women and men in Government custody.

We understand that these ISIL militants included many who were recently evacuated and relocated from the Palestinian Yarmouk Refugee Camp, Hajar Al-Aswad, and Al-Tadamon areas of southern Damascus as part of a Government “reconciliation agreement”. The Government has reportedly used such agreements in areas it is close to capturing, in order to give armed groups the option of either reconciling with the Government or being transferred to other parts of the country that are not Government-controlled. While agreements putting an end to fighting are to be welcomed, the well-being of civilians must be paramount in any considerations. The transfer of armed fighters with a history of gross human rights abuses and contempt towards international law can mean an increase in the likelihood of violent attacks against civilians like the ones carried out last week in As-Sweida. We urge the Syrian Government not to put civilians at serious risk through such relocations.

We are also concerned that the situation in As-Sweida may worsen, particularly if the local communities do not trust the Government to protect them or defend their rights. We call on the Government of Syria to take all necessary measures, in line with international human rights and humanitarian law, to protect civilians from attacks. The Government of Syria has a duty to take action to prevent violent acts that may endanger the lives and well-being of civilians - including by not placing armed groups such as ISIL in their proximity. The Government also has the duty to ensure that those who commit crimes, human rights violations or abuses are held accountable according to law and in compliance with the applicable international human rights standards.

(2) Saudi Arabia

We are concerned about the continuing arrests and apparently arbitrary detentions of human rights defenders and activists in Saudi Arabia, including women’s rights activists. Since 15 May, at least 15 Government critics were detained. We understand that eight of them were later temporarily released until the completion of their “procedural review”. In some cases, their whereabouts are unknown and there is a serious lack of transparency in the processing of their cases. While the authorities have made statements about possible serious charges, that could lead to prison terms of up to 20 years, it is unclear whether charges have been laid in any of these cases.

Among those who reportedly remain detained are Hatoon al-Fassi, a leading voice for women’s participation in civil life in Saudi Arabia and one of the first women to acquire a Saudi drivers’ license. She was detained between 21 and 24 June. Also in detention are human rights defender Khaled Al-Omair, who has not been contactable since he was taken on 6 July to Al-Ha’ir Political Prison; women’s rights activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef, Nouf Abdelaziz and Mayaa al-Zahrani. They also include al-Hathloul’s 80-year-old lawyer, Ibrahim al-Modaimeegh, and activist Abdulaziz Meshaal.

We urge the Government of Saudi Arabia to unconditionally release all human rights defenders and activists who have been detained for their peaceful human rights work, including their decades-long campaigns for the lifting of the driving ban for women. Any investigations must be held in a transparent manner, with full respect for due process rights. All human rights defenders should be able to carry out their crucial human rights work without fear of reprisals or prosecution.

ENDS

For more information and media requests, please contact Rupert Colville - + 41 22 917 9767 / rcolville@ohchr.org or Liz Throssell - + 41 22 917 9466 / ethrossell@ohchr.org or Ravina Shamdasani - + 41 22 917 9169 / rshamdasani@ohchr.org

2018 is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN on 10 December 1948. The Universal Declaration – translated into a world record 500 languages – is rooted in the principle that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” It remains relevant to everyone, every day. In honour of the 70thanniversary of this extraordinarily influential document, and to prevent its vital principles from being eroded, we are urging people everywhere to Stand Up for Human Rightswww.standup4humanrights.org.

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