Qatar says blockade by Arab states is collective punishment

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The head of Qatar's human rights committee on Friday denounced moves by several Arab states to isolate his country, calling it "collective punishment" that affects families, students and those in ill health — even as three other Gulf countries defended the measures and announced steps to ease the impact on "our brotherly Qatari people."

Speaking in Geneva as the diplomatic dispute rages among Gulf Arab states, Ali Bin Samikh Al-Marri appealed to United Nations experts to investigate the impact of the blockade.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have accused Qatar of supporting terrorism and last week, they severed ties with Doha and banned Qatari planes from the Arab nations' airspace.

Qatar denies the allegations but its ties to Iran and embrace of various Islamist groups have put the country under intense scrutiny. While the dispute hasn't escalated to a military confrontation, Qatar's military is dwarfed by neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two of its biggest opponents in the crisis.

Al-Marri said the Qatari National Human Rights Committee was seeking U.N. action through creation of a "fact-finding commission" and deployment of U.N. rights investigators to assess the impact in Qatar.

Earlier this week, U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, a Jordanian prince, expressed alarm at the possible impact of the move against Qatar on the lives of thousands of people.

But Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates shot back at Zeid, according to a joint statement e-mailed Friday to The Associated Press by the Saudi mission in Geneva.

The statement said their decisions to cut ties with Qatar were a "sovereign right" and meant to defend their national security from terrorism and extremism.

It added that "for the sake of our brotherly Qatari people ... it was decided to take many measures aimed at addressing humanitarian and health cases, establish hot lines in each country so that cases can be reported and appropriate action be taken" in line with humanitarian traditions and international human rights law.

Al-Marri focused on measures that impacted people on both sides of the dispute — how the Gulf Arab states behind the blockade ordered all Qataris to leave within 14 days while calling their own citizens back from Qatar.

"Because of these measures taken, there were violations of freedom of expression and opinion, the right to work, the right to education, the right to health, and we see that this siege and these measures have led to what are called collective punishment or sanctions," Al-Marri said, speaking through a translator. "It was harsher than the Berlin Wall that separated families."

He also said his committee was in contact with lawyers abroad to help plan a legal response to the blockade.