Security, religion block Saudi rights progress: Amnesty

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Saudi Arabia has made minor progress on its dismal human rights record but the powerful state security apparatus and the conservative religious regime continue to block real change, Amnesty International said Wednesday.

Despite recently formed human rights bodies and reforms to the justice system, prisoners still face secret and summary justice, women are frequently abused, and faiths other than Sunni Muslim are still unable to worship freely in the country, Amnesty said in its annual report for 2010.

"The authorities used a wide range of repressive measures to suppress freedom of expression and other legitimate activities" last year, Amnesty said.

It cited the ongoing practice of detention without charge or trial of people suspected of links to what the Saudis brand as "terrorist" activities.

Amnesty said "thousands" of people arrested in recent years on terror-related allegations remained in prison without charge, trial or access to legal advice, with "hundreds" more arrested in 2009.

And some 330 accused of links to Al-Qaeda were tried by secret tribunal without defence attorneys last year, Amnesty said. Of these, one was sentenced to death, and 323 to prison terms.

Meanwhile prisoners face torture and mistreatment including beatings, electric shocks, suspension and sleep deprivation, it said.

"The authorities used a range of repressive measures in the name of countering terrorism, undermining embryonic legal reforms."

Security forces can ignore new rights-related laws "knowing they could act with impunity," Amnesty said.

Despite the first woman ever being named to a deputy minister position last year, under the country's ultra-conservative Wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam, women still face "severe discrimination," Amnesty said.

Officials last June pledged to the UN rights officials to give women more freedoms and protection.

But they remained banned from driving, subject to tight controls on their movements and forbidden to associate with unrelated men.

Despite a growing Saudi campaign to protect women from domestic violence, Amnesty cited several cases showing that reforms have not gone far.

In February 2009 an unmarried 23-year-old woman was given a one-year jail sentence and 100 lashes for fornication and seeking an abortion after she was raped by five men.

In July a man shot dead his two sisters in an "honour killing" after the sisters were arrested for having fraternised with unrelated men. It was not clear whether the man, who was publicly absolved by his father, was punished for murder.

Amnesty also noted Saudi Arabia's high execution rate, with at least 69 people put to death last year. But the rights group did not comment on the decline from the much higher execution rate the previous two years.

Another mixed sign was in the treatment of reformist dissidents. Amnesty raised the cases of seven men arrested in 2007 and still not having been charged or tried.

But there were no records of new arrests of "prisoners of conscience" since then.

Amnesty also cited the detentions of numerous Shiites in the eastern provinces, most of whom are understood to have been arrested in connection with their worship.

And it noted the arrest of a Saudi man who said on his blog that he had converted to Christianity. He was held for two months before being freed but forbidden to write about his religion.

© 2010 AFP

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