JEDDAH (Reuters) - Fifty men suspected of links to al Qaeda have gone on trial in Saudi Arabia on charges of killing an American and attacking foreign housing compounds in the capital and in the Eastern Province, the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said.
The report said five of the suspects had appeared at a special court in the capital Riyadh on Saturday, facing charges including the 2003 bombing of the al-Muhaya compound, where expatriates lived, and planning attacks on the U.S. and British embassies in Saudi Arabia.
Of the defendants, 47 are Saudi, two are Syrian and one is Yemeni, SPA said late on Saturday.
Saudi Arabia saw a militant insurgency from 2003 to 2006 in which al Qaeda members staged attacks on residential compounds for foreign workers and Saudi government facilities, killing dozens.
The kingdom responded by arresting thousands of suspected militants and launching a media campaign to discredit their ideology with the backing of influential clerics and tribal leaders.
“The Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh started looking into the case, filed by the public prosecution, against 50 men,” SPA said. “The first, second, third, fourth and fifth defendants appeared in court today (Saturday) and were read their charges.”
The session adjourned without setting a date for the next hearing, when the other suspects are also expected to appear.
SPA did not give details on the American the suspects are accused of killing but at least one U.S. national was kidnapped and killed by militants in 2004.
Saudi lawyers say court verdicts are subject to the authority of the judge, who must follow Sharia, Islamic law, stating that those convicted of killing a Muslim can face the death penalty.
Last year the Interior Ministry said nearly 5,700 people had been arrested, and of those 5,000 were tried. Human rights groups in Saudi Arabia put the number of those jailed at more than 12,000, including political prisoners demanding reforms.
Saudi Arabia took 41 people to court in September on charges of forming an al Qaeda-linked cell with the aim of attacking U.S. forces in neighboring Kuwait and Qatar. In October, 85 alleged members of an al Qaeda-linked group were also put on trial.
The government’s Human Rights Commission, which reports directly to King Abdullah, and selected local media attended those hearings.
Reporting By Asma Alsharif; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Karolina Tagaris