A U.N. forum held in Riyadh last week amounted to a "slap in the face" for Saudis jailed in a country which does not allow independent NGOs, a rights group said Monday.
Adam Coogle, Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), was commenting on a two-day UNESCO NGO Forum staged in the Saudi capital.
"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," Coogle wrote.
He said Saudi Arabia took an important step in November 2015 when it approved a law which, for the first time, allows non-governmental organizations engaged in activities other than charity.
That law has "serious flaws", including a bar on NGOs collaborating with foreign organizations without government approval, said Coogle of the New York-based watchdog.
"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'," he said.
The forum was organized with the MiSK Foundation founded by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is pushing economic and social change in the kingdom.
The Riyadh event marked the first time the forum had been held in the Arab region, Irina Bokova, director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, said in a video address opening the event.
Aiming to empower youth, it featured speakers from the Arab world and beyond.
In January, a Saudi counter-terrorism court upheld an eight-year prison sentence for Abdulaziz al-Shubaily, a leading member of the Association for Civil and Political Rights which was dissolved by a Saudi court in 2013.
He was the last of the group's founders to be locked up, London-based Amnesty International has said.
On a visit to Saudi Arabia last Thursday, a United Nations special rapporteur said the kingdom should urgently review its definition of terrorism under a law used to prosecute non-violent journalists, human rights defenders and others.
Ben Emmerson said he presented the Saudi government with a list of nine "priority cases," individuals who a U.N. group in 2015 said had been arbitrarily detained for exercising their rights to free speech and peaceful association.