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(New York) - Some Saudis enjoyed a limited, but lively, exchange of views in 2010, largely online, but the government harassed and jailed vocal critics and a new regulation is likely to squelch most electronic communications, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2011 chapter on Saudi Arabia.

The 649-page report, the organization's 21st annual review of human rights practices around the globe, summarizes major human rights issues in more than 90 countries worldwide. In Saudi Arabia, the government's new regulation subjects electronic communications to strict content limitations and registration requirements.

"In 2010 activists could risk expressing their views on the government's shortcomings online, but under the new regulation, that is formally forbidden," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "With Saudis taking for granted their access to news and opinions from all over their country and the world, will they really accept this new attempt to muzzle them?"

In response to the expanded exchange of views through online discussion forums, blogs, news websites, and, in 2010 in particular, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information on January 1, 2011, issued an Executive Regulation for Electronic Publishing Activity. The new regulation subjects all forms of electronic news and information sharing to the vague provisions of the Press and Publications Law of 2000, including requiring publications to promote Islam, not to harm national security or economic interests, health, and public order, or offend the pride of individuals.

Under the new rules, operators of news websites, discussion forums, blogs, personal websites, or those publishing information via mobile phone text messaging or group emails will require a ministry license or registration. These provisions compound the country's 2007 cybercrimes law, which imposes harsh criminal penalties on persons who are judged to have defamed others online or to have set up websites incompatible with Islam.

The availability of news and information from around the world also has led to greater awareness of human rights, Human Rights Watch said. This awareness has grown considerably since King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz acceded the throne in August 2005 and that same year established a governmental Human Rights Commission, which has promoted human rights through school curricula and television programs.

A number of mostly internet-based nongovernmental human rights organizations have developed as well. Saudi Arabia does not have a law regulating these groups, though they must apply for licenses to operate. The appointed Shura Council, which fulfils some functions of a parliament, approved a draft law to regulate nongovernmental organizations in 2007, but the Council of Ministers has so far not passed it.

The new groups include Human Rights First in Saudi Arabia, the Association for Civil and Political Rights in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Human Rights Monitor, and Saudi Women's Voice. The government has denied licenses to these groups, though, and only recognizes one nongovernmental group, the National Society for Human Rights, founded in 2004.

Nevertheless, internet-based groups regularly issue statements on individual cases of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. A campaign on Twitter and Facebook in October to free a woman jailed for "disobedience" to her father attracted the government's attention and led to her release.

A number of human rights activists and government critics faced harassment and jail, often without trial, during 2010 for their persistent criticism of government policy failures, including the lack of religious tolerance in the country, and for their demands for respect of human rights.

The authorities arrested Shaikh Mikhlif bin Dahham al-Shammari, a Sunni human rights activist, on June 15, for articles he published online criticizing extremist religious views and unfulfilled government promises to develop infrastructure and tourism. He was charged with "annoying others," but he has remained in prison for more than six months without trial.

Saudi intelligence forces had arrested Munir al-Jassas, a Shia rights activist, in November 2009 for an online posting demanding equal rights for Saudi Shia, a minority in the majority Sunni country. He also remains in prison without trial.

Hadi Al Mutif, a follower of the Ismaili branch of Shiism prevalent in Najran, in southern Saudi Arabia, has spent 18 years in prison under a death sentence, accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. In August 2009 a Saudi court additionally sentenced Al Mutif to five years in prison for sending a prison video of himself describing his plight to the Al-Hurra satellite television station.

"Courageous activists like al-Shammari are pioneers in guiding Saudis to a more just and open society," Whitson said. "They stand for everything that is right in Saudi society - for the dignity and respect of all Saudis - but the Saudi government stands for what is wrong when it jails people for expressing their views."

Activists cannot rely on legal safeguards or the judiciary to protect them from arbitrary detention. Saudi Arabia has invested billions of riyals to improve its judiciary since 2007, training judges and building new courts, but the country has no penal code to define crimes. Security forces arrest and detain people arbitrarily, including thousands of suspected militants, for years, and trials remain patently unfair.

One attempt to hold the security forces accountable failed on August 28, when the Board of Grievances, an administrative court, dismissed a lawsuit against the intelligence forces for holding a former judge and political reform activist, Sulaiman al-Rashudi, without charge or trial since February 2007.

Human Rights Watch called on the Saudi government to institutionalize human rights protections to preserve gains in increased awareness of human rights. In particular, Saudi Arabia should enshrine legal protections for free expression and peaceful assembly, issue a penal code and a law to regulate nongovernmental organizations that comply with international human rights law, and improve accountability for governmental violations of human rights.

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