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Thu 11 Mar 2010 07:16 AM

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Saudi officials urged to rethink online protest charges

Human Rights Watch calls for charges to be dropped in web medical protest case.

Saudi officials urged to rethink online protest charges
INTERNET PLEA: Human Rights Watch has urged Saudi Arabia to drop charges against a Saudi man who used the internet to complain about red tape. (Getty Images)

Human Rights Watch has urged Saudi Arabia to drop charges against a Saudi man who used the internet and other media to complain about red tape as he tried to get state funding for his brother's medical treatment.

Nasir al-Subai has been charged under a law issued in 2007 to prevent libel and other violations linked to information technology and to "protect the public interest and morals", New York-based HRW said in a statement.

Subai had been blogging and speaking to the media about what he said was a lack of support from Saudi officials as he tried to arrange care for his brother, who had been in a coma after a traffic accident in Saudi Arabia in 2007, it said.

"Saudi prosecutors are trying to silence legitimate complaints, which Saudi citizens have the right to make public," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East director. "Public criticism of the government's alleged failures (is) an important check on its performance and a good tool for accountability."

There was no immediate reaction from Saudi officials or media.

The law punishes libellous use of information technology with up to one year in prison and a fine of up to 500,000 riyals ($133,300). Producing anything that "contests public order...or the inviolability of private life" carries a sentence of up to five years and a fine of up to 3 million riyals, HRW said.

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.

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