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HRW slams five-year jail term against Saudi activist

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A general view of the Saudi capital Riyadh, on March 7, 2007. Human Rights Watch has criticised Saudi Arabia's criminal justice system after a court sentenced a prominent human rights activist to five years in prison over his writings.AFP/File

Human Rights Watch on Sunday criticised Saudi Arabia's criminal justice system after a court sentenced a prominent human rights activist to five years in prison over his writings.

Saudi Arabia's Specialised Criminal Court sentenced Mikhlif al-Shammari to five years in prison on June 17, "based on his writings and exposure of human rights abuses," said the New York-based watchdog.

Shammari was convicted of "sowing discord" and other offences, said HRW. He was barred from travelling for 10 years.

"Al-Shammari is the latest in a lengthening line of Saudi human rights activists hauled before the courts and branded as criminals for exercising their right to free speech," said Joe Stork, HRW's deputy Middle East director.

"King Abdullah needs to reform the criminal justice system to end these abuses unless he wants his legacy to be repression rather than reform," said Stork.

Shammari, 58, was arrested in June 2010 on a charge of "annoying others," said HRW. He was released on bail in February last year, a month before his trial began.

Shammari, a writer who belongs to the large Al-Shammar tribe, had campaigned to improve ties with the kingdom's Shiite minority who complain of marginalisation in the Sunni-dominated kingdom, HRW said.

It said the activist had criticised "government rights violations, many of which have targeted the Shia."

"He told Human Rights Watch he was convicted based on articles that he wrote and published in 2009 and 2010 criticising corruption, double standards, and the hypocrisy of some religious figures," said the watchdog.

On June 15, a court handed two Saudi women 10-month jail sentences for seeking to help a Canadian woman who wanted to leave her Saudi husband and flee the kingdom with her children.

The court also banned Fawzia al-Ayuni and Wajiha al-Huaider from leaving the kingdom for two years.

In March, a Saudi court sentenced human rights activists Mohammed al-Gahtani and Abdullah al-Hamed to 10 years and five years in prison respectively.

They were convicted of violating a law on cybercriminality by using Twitter to denounce various aspects of political and social life in the ultra-conservative kingdom.