United Nations torture experts called on Saudi Arabia on Friday to stop corporal punishment, including flogging and amputations, practices that the Gulf kingdom considers an integral part of its interpretation of Islamic law.
The committee that monitors the UN Convention against Torture, in its first review of Saudi Arabia since 2002, also raised concerns about the ill-treatment of Saudi bloggers, activists and human rights lawyers while in custody.
"Has Saudi Arabia taken steps to prohibit ... corporal punishments, such as flogging and amputation of limbs, which are in breach of the Convention?" panel member Felice Gaer asked Saudi officials.
The head of the Saudi delegation said work was under way on "a new penal code to combat the abuse of power, to include the definition of torture as provided under the Convention," something the panel had requested at its last review in 2002.
He said Islamic law did not contradict international treaties and that Saudi's "anti-torture strategy ... is based on firm constitutional principles stemming from the Islamic sharia, as well as the relevant laws, national legislations and conventions, especially the Convention against Torture."
The Committee against Torture usually looks at countries every five years or so, but had been unable to do so for Saudi Arabia because the government was over 4 years late in submitting its report on its compliance with the Convention.
Gaer said the Committee knew of "a significant number" of cases where suspects said they had been tortured into making confessions and that Saudi judges appeared to be "making little or no effort to investigate these allegations."
She raised the case of Raef Badawi, a blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years' jail for "insulting Islam." Badawi, recipient of the EU's Sakharov human rights prize, received his first public flogging of 50 lashes in January 2015.
"We are aware of many people belonging to or who actually created human rights organizations have been deprived of their liberty, and sometimes charged and even sentenced to lengthy jail terms," she added. "This casts a pall over the review."
Journalist Alaa Brinji was sentenced last month to five years in jail for insulting the kingdom's rulers and inciting public opinion, "merely for posting messages on Twitter in support of Saudi Arabian human rights activists," Gaer said.
The review, which continues on Monday, follows a visit to Riyadh by US President Barack Obama who raised concerns about human rights.