Amnesty: Saudi terror bill could muzzle dissidents

July 22, 2011 - 9:30 AM

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Amnesty International warned on Friday that a draft anti-terrorism law being considered by Saudi Arabia would allow authorities in the ultraconservative Muslim nation to prosecute dissent as a terrorist act.

The draft, a copy of which the rights group said it obtained, labels as terrorist crimes such offenses as harming the reputation of the state and endangering national unity. Such language is typically used to prosecute political opponents of the Saudi monarchy, which does not tolerate dissent and bans political activity.

The law would give wide ranging powers to the Saudi's security forces to hold and question those it suspects of such crimes for prolonged time and without a charge. It would also carry harsh punishments, including a minimum prison sentence of 10 years for challenging the integrity of the king, the group said in a statement.

Saudi Arabia has not seen the kind of unrest raging around the Middle East, but it is taking steps to prevent pro-democracy protests from spilling over into the oil-rich kingdom, particularly from neighboring Bahrain. Earlier this year, Riyadh sent troops to Bahrain to help the Sunni rulers there quell the revolt by the island nation's Shiite majority, demanding greater freedoms and more rights.

There have been several modest attempts at a pro-reform protest in Saudi Arabia since the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt kicked off anti-government demonstrations around the region in February. The Arab Spring has inspired a group of Saudi women to protest the men-only driving rule in the kingdom.

About 40 Saudi women got behind the wheel last month and drove through the Saudi capital, Riyadh, saying they were launching a campaign to lift the driving restrictions in the Muslim country, where women can only appear in public when escorted by a male relative.

At least five women have been in custody since the campaign.

Saudi Arabia has no written law barring women from driving — only fatwas, or religious edicts, by senior clerics following a strict brand of Islam known as Wahhabism.