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Last Updated: Monday, 17 January, 2005, 14:03 GMT
Saudi lashes 'to silence dissent'
Saudi special forces after a parade in Mecca before the Hajj pilgrimage
The Saudi authorities take a dim view of anti-regime activity
Saudi Arabia is using a form of torture - flogging - to silence dissent in the kingdom, a human rights group says.

Last week, a Saudi court sentenced 15 people to prison terms and up to 250 lashes for taking part in illegal anti-regime protests on 16 December.

"The sentence is a terrible disappointment," said the New York-based group Human Rights Watch.

The Saudi state prosecutor called the sentences too lenient and said the government would appeal.

HRW Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson said: "For all the Saudi government's promises of reform ... [it] is denying Saudis their basic rights to free speech and association, and then subjects them to flogging when they attempt to do so."

The group says that, according to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, flogging "can amount to cruel inhuman punishment, or even torture", and violates the international convention against torture, to which Saudi Arabia is a signatory.

'Al-Qaeda link'

Last month's demonstrations in Jeddah and Riyadh were called by prominent Saudi dissident Saad al-Faqih, leader of the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (Mira), who is based in London.

An overwhelming Saudi security presence ensured that the demonstrators could not gather in significant numbers, particularly in the capital, Riyadh.

The Bank of England recently froze funds linked to Mr Faqih after he was accused by the UN of ties to the Islamist militant organisation al-Qaeda - a charge he denies.

The Saudi government also accuses Mr Faqih of involvement in extremism. Mr Faqih accuses the Saudi authorities of corruption and deviating from the precepts of Islam.

HRW says flogging sentences are usually only handed down by Saudi Arabia's religious courts for moral offences such as adultery.

They are unusual in the case of political dissidents and are not normally announced publicly by the government.

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