World News

Saudi urged to annul woman's jail, lashes sentence

RIYADH (Reuters) - Human Rights Watch called on Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to quash a sentence of 18 months in jail and 300 lashes issued against a woman for filing harassment complaints without being accompanied by a male guardian.

Tribal custom and strict rules limit women’s movement in the conservative Islamic state, where women are forbidden from driving. Women can face action by the religious police if they are not accompanied in public by a male relative acting as a guardian.

“In Saudi Arabia, being a woman going about her legitimate business without a man’s protection is apparently a crime,” said Nadya Khalife, women’s rights researcher for the Middle East at New York-based HRW.

“The government needs to free Sawsan Salim and keep its promise to end this discriminatory system,” Khalife said in a statement.

Salim had been accused of making “spurious complaints” against government officials, including 118 complaints during 2007, and appearing without a male guardian in court, the statement said.

There was no immediate Saudi reaction to the HRW statement.

Salim has appealed against her conviction, the Saudi daily Okaz said on its website in February.

Saudi officials reject criticism by Western groups of the kingdom’s human rights record as a misunderstanding of Islamic law, saying the strict rules have wide support.

King Abdullah has tried some reforms aimed at curbing the influence of the religious establishment in education and the judiciary. But diplomats say his room for manoeuvre is limited given the resistance of powerful conservatives.

Reporting by by Firouz Sedarat in Dubai; editing by Ralph Boulton