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The Saudi government should act immediately to stop the sentence of flogging imposed on 15 anti-government protestors, Human Rights Watch said today.

The protestors, including one woman and two foreign nationals, were among 21 people who had been arrested following a public demonstration on December 16 in Jeddah. The protest called for an elected government, independent judiciary and a new Islamic constitution. A religious court sentenced them to a range of 100 to 250 lashes and two to six months imprisonment for taking part in demonstrations against the government.

In an unusual move, the government on January 11 publicly announced the sentence. Previously protestors and political dissidents have been sentenced to jail terms and fines, but not flogging. When religious courts have handed down flogging sentences, it has usually been for morals offenses such as adultery, and the government has not taken the step of publicly announcing the sentence.

“For all the Saudi government’s promises of reform, this sentence is a terrible disappointment,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Saudi government is flogging those who attempt to exercise the basic rights to free speech and association.”

In 1997 the United Nations Commission on Human Rights concluded that “corporal punishment [such as flogging] can amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment, or even to torture.” Flogging violates the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which Saudi Arabia became a party in 1997.

The December 16 demonstration had been called by Saad al-Faqih, a London-based Saudi who heads the dissident Movement for Islamic Reform. Saudi Arabia and the United States have accused al-Faqih of being associated with Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda organization.

In March 2004, the government arrested 13 people who attempted to circulate a petition calling for Saudi Arabia to become a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. Ten were released within several weeks after agreeing to halt their public petition efforts. The trial of the three who refused to agree to these terms has had several sessions but has not been concluded.

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