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Saudi says draft anti-terrorism law being amended

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has revised an anti-terrorism law and made it less severe than a leaked version that was heavily criticised by human rights groups, a Shura Council spokesman said Saturday.

“The draft that was published is not the final one,” said Mohammed Almohanna, spokesman for the advisory parliament.

“It was discussed in a Shura Council session. It was a draft and some changes were made to it to ensure that the law is compatible with Sharia (Islamic law) and does not violate citizens’ rights or the country’s existing laws,” he said.

He said the Shura would amend the draft further when its summer recess ends in mid-September before sending it to the king for approval.

Amnesty International, which published a draft of the Penal Law for Terrorism Crimes and Financing Terrorism on its website, said on July 22 that the authorities could use the law to stifle dissent and pro-democracy protests in the absolute monarchy.

Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally and top world oil exporter, follows an austere version of Sunni Islam. It has no political parties. The appointed Shura Council has only limited powers.

The draft law, in the version published by Amnesty, would consider “endangering... national unity” and “harming the reputation of the state or its position” as terrorist crimes, and would allow suspects to be held incommunicado for an indefinite period, if approved by a special court.

It would also stipulate a minimum 10-year jail sentence for questioning the integrity of the king or crown prince.

But an amendment to the draft changes the offence to taking up arms against the king or crown prince or abandoning loyalty to them, Saudi activist Waleed Abu Alkhair said.

He said the Shura Council’s changes might be overridden. “There is trepidation that the amendments will not be accepted... It is clear that there was an attempt to pass this quickly and secretly,” Abu Alkhair said.

The draft law version on Amnesty’s website was marked “secret and urgent” and indicated that the council would have one month from an unspecified date to make changes to the law.

The draft law would also give the Interior Minister broad powers to act to protect internal security without judicial authorisation or oversight.

Activists say thousands of people are held in Saudi prisons without charge or access to lawyers, despite a law that limits detention without trial to six months. The draft law would largely formalise such practices.

“We witnessed severe violations by the Interior Ministry and the executive authorities which we used to criticize as violations of the law. Now, if this law is passed, these criticisms will be considered violations of the law and the former violations will become laws,” Abu Alkhair said.

Reporting by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Alistair Lyon