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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 March, 2004, 15:27 GMT
Saudis set up human rights body
Crown Prince Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler
The de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, has given his support
The Saudi authorities have approved the setting up of the country's first body to monitor observance of human rights.

The kingdom's human rights record has often been the target of criticism by foreign campaign groups, particularly over public beheadings for certain offences.

The creation of the new body is being seen as another step in a process of reform in the conservative kingdom.

It comes amid indications that Saudi women could be allowed to vote in landmark polls due later this year.

The National Human Rights Association is to have 41 members - 10 of them women - and is to be headed by Abdullah bin Saleh al-Obeid.

According to the official Saudi news agency, the committee will review complaints about human rights violations and work towards ensuring the kingdom observes international agreements.

Mr Obeid, a member of the government-appointed Shura or consultative council, said he had received a letter from King Fahd approving the establishment of the NHRA, and that he had also received a promise of support from Crown Prince Abdullah.

Opportunity to vote

The Saudi government has been under increasing pressure to introduce political and economic reforms.

Last year, the king granted wider powers to the Shura and announced that the country's first ever elections - for local councils - would be held in 2004.

The authorities gave no indication at the time that women might be able to take part as candidates or voters in the municipal elections expected to be held in October.

However, a Saudi press release, quoted in the British newspaper The Guardian on Wednesday, said: "It is believed both men and women will be given the opportunity to vote."

The newspaper also quoted a Shura member as saying that women will not specifically be excluded from the vote.

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