The International rights groups Human Rights Watch (HRW) says a UN-sponsored forum recently held in the Saudi capital Riyadh amounted to a "slap in the face" for persecuted Saudi activists jailed across the kingdom.
Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher for HRW, was commenting on a two-day NGO Forum staged by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Riyadh last week.
"To host a prestigious NGO event in Saudi Arabia is a slap in the face to the more than a dozen Saudis languishing in prison merely for trying to set up independent organizations, and an unearned reward to the government officials who put them there," said Coogle of the New York-based watchdog on Monday.
UNESCO held its 7th International Forum of NGOs in Riyadh – where the government does not allow independent nongovernmental organizations or activists to function and puts advocates of human rights in jail. The event was co-organized with the MiSK Foundation founded by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The event marked the first time the forum had been held in the Arab region. Irina Bokova, the director general of UNESCO, said in a video address opening the event that the forum aimed to empower youth from the Arab world and beyond.
Elsewhere in his remarks, Coogle also said that Saudi Arabia took an important step in November 2015 when it approved a law which, for the first time, allows NGOs engaged in activities other than charity.
Coogle, however, criticized the law, saying it has "serious flaws," including a bar on NGOs collaborating with foreign organizations without government approval. "And this law appears to provide protection when the Saudi authorities continue to vigorously prosecute and imprison independent human rights activists for setting up 'unlicensed organizations."
Several rights groups have strongly denounced Riyadh’s relentless crackdown on human rights campaigners in the kingdom.
In early February, HRW said that Saudi Arabia had stepped up the politically-motivated arrests, prosecution, and convictions of peaceful dissident writers and human rights campaigners since the beginning of the current year.
On a visit to Saudi Arabia last Thursday, Ben Emmerson, the special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), also said that Saudi Arabia should urgently review its definition of a 2014 counter-terrorism law, which is being used to prosecute non-violent journalists and peaceful human rights campaigners in the kingdom.
Emmerson added that the controversial law contained an "unacceptably broad definition" of the crime and did not comply with international rights standards.
The developments also come as the kingdom has also stepped up security measures in the Shia-majority Eastern Province, which has seen numerous protest rallies against religious persecution.
Demonstrations intensified in the province after the January 2016 execution by the regime of prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.