Saudi Arabia urged to halt floggings, give women rights

GENEVA Fri Feb 6, 2009 7:25pm IST

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GENEVA (Reuters) - Western countries called on Saudi Arabia on Friday to halt floggings and amputations, allow religious freedom and abolish a system of male guardianship sharply limiting women's rights.

Britain, Canada, Switzerland and Israel challenged Riyadh on issues including its high number of executions. Saudi Arabia executes murderers, rapists and drug traffickers, usually by public beheading, and judges sometimes give the death sentence to armed robbers and those convicted of "sorcery" or desecrating the Koran.

A Saudi delegation defended its record at the United Nations Human Rights Council, saying the country was cracking down on domestic violence by men who abused their roles as guardians and beat their wives and children.

Zaid Al-Hussein, vice president of the state-affiliated Saudi Human Rights Commission, told the forum much remained to be done to ensure that individual followers of Islam uphold human rights standards, as required by sharia law.

"Consequently, we do not claim to be perfect, nor do we reject criticism, which is welcome provided it is objective and intended to preserve human rights and dignity," he said.

The 47 member-state Council began regular reviews of all U.N. members last June in a bid to avoid charges of selectivity.

Hussein said non-Muslims could follow their faiths in private in the kingdom, but it would be difficult to allow non-Muslim houses of worship as "Islam is the final religion".

The oil-exporting Gulf country, a major U.S. ally, has paid $100 million compensation to people detained in terrorist cases who were later found to be innocent, he said.

FLOGGING AND EYE-GOUGING

Israel accused Saudi Arabia of "severe discrimination against women and minorities, corporal punishment, torture, forced labour, and the sexual exploitation of children".

It should "abolish corporal punishment, and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in general, and public floggings, eye-gouging, flogging of schoolchildren, and amputation of limbs in particular," Israeli ambassador Aharon Leshno Yaar said.

British envoy Peter Gooderham urged the kingdom to "abolish the guardianship system which severely limits the rights of women to act as autonomous and equal members of Saudi society".

A U.N. women's rights watchdog said last year the system severely limited freedoms guaranteed by international law. It restricts women's rights in marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, property ownership and decision-making in the family, and choice of residency, education and jobs.

Canada recommended that Saudi Arabia "cease application of torture" and other cruel treatment.

The United States did not take the floor in the three-hour debate. The Obama administration is reviewing its policy towards the Council, which the Bush administration had essentially boycotted since last June citing its "rather pathetic record".

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