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Human Rights Watch starts work in Saudi Arabia

Written by: Staff

Riyadh, Dec 5: A delegation from the US based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has arrived in Saudi Arabia on the first extensive fact-finding mission by such a group in the conservative Muslim country.

Delegation members told a gathering of prominent Saudis and foreign diplomats late on Sunday that they would spend three weeks interviewing government officials, organisations and individuals.

The main issues they will focus on include the criminal justice system, political rights, the status of women and foreign worker rights.

''We hope we can encourage a process of change,'' HRW executive director Kenneth Roth said. ''The government seems, at least at the rhetorical level, interested in reform.'' Saudi Arabia, a key US ally and the world's biggest oil producer, has embarked on a cautious reform programme under King Abdullah who came to power last year. He set up a Human Rights Commission in September 2005.

Earlier this year the New York-based rights group branded a number of countries including Saudi Arabia ''spoilers'' on the new United Nations Human Rights Council based in Geneva.

HRW made a first exploratory visit to Saudi Arabia in 2003.

No other major rights groups have been able to conduct field work in the vast desert country, an absolute monarchy with a religious police that imposes strict gender segregation.

UK based Amnesty International is due to make its first major visit in late January, a spokesman in London told Reuters.

''We will meet government ministers, establish contacts with civil society and visit prisons,'' he said.

The United States and rights groups have often criticised Saudi Arabia over many issues including religious freedom, freedom of expression, the use of the death penalty and of public beheading.

Saudi Arabia says its system of Islamic laws ensure full rights for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Religious scholars preside over Islamic courts where most law is not codified. Nearly one-third of the country's 24 million population are foreigners, mainly blue-collar workers from Asian countries.


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