- The Washington Times - Monday, March 23, 2009

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA (AP) - A Saudi human rights groups has strongly criticized the kingdom’s religious police, judiciary and security agencies in a new report and called for changing laws that discriminate against women.

The report, issued Sunday by the National Society for Human Rights, also urged an end to the marriage of underage girls and demanded a faster pace for judicial reform, including retraining judges.

This is the group’s second report, since its founding in 2004.

The report highlighted violations by the powerful Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice which runs the religious police and accused it of “infringing individuals’ rights.”

People detained by the religious police have been “interrogated and sometimes assaulted and made to confess under duress to acts they did not commit,” the report said, adding that in some cases this has led to deaths in custody.

“In commenting on the incidents, the commission leans toward denying them, belittling their importance or saying they are individual acts,” said the report.

Currently there are efforts to retrain members of the religious police through workshops, but the report said these do not go far enough.

“There is a need to accurately define the powers and authority of the commission members,” the group’s statement said.

The report also listed several aspects of the Saudi judicial system that have resulted in unfair trials, including the difficulty women have litigating, closed trials, the intimidation of complainants and wildly varying sentences for the same offense.

The report also said it has received complaints from families whose children have been jailed without trial, some for more than four years, on vague accusations of being members of “deviant” groups _ often a euphemism for al-Qaida.

The report praised the appointment of women to key positions, including as deputy education minister and urged the government to continue such steps.

But it said that while women have been allowed to run and vote in chamber of commerce elections, their participation in municipal elections, is “unclear.” A law should be issued to “guarantee equality and a lack of discrimination between men and women in this respect.”

The report also called for giving women more opportunities in the workplace. It said the major obstacles against women working in professions such as lawyers, lie in traditions rather than existing laws.

“This calls for a national plan to change social trends that violate Islamic law texts … and lead to the loss of many of (women’s) legal rights,” it said.

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