DUBAI (Reuters) - A Saudi rights group has accused Iraqi authorities of deliberately mistreating Saudi inmates, a Saudi newspaper said on Thursday, highlighting lingering tensions between the two Arab countries.
Al-Watan, a privately-owned Saudi daily, quoted an unnamed official at the National Society for Human Rights as saying that Saudi Arabian prisoners in Iraq are "treated differently from other Arab inmates for no reason other than they are Saudis".
"Security and administrative" obstacles had been obstructing its representatives or the Red Cross from visiting some nearly 60 Saudi prisoners held in Iraq, it cited the source as saying.
An Iraqi Justice Ministry spokesman denied the charges.
"These allegations are incorrect and baseless. We refuse them completely," the spokesman, Haider Al-Saadi, told Reuters.
"We treat the Iraqi, Saudi and foreign prisoners according to the principles of human rights," he said.
Thousands of Saudis travelled to Iraq to fight alongside Islamist insurgents after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Official rights group statistics show that less than 100 Saudis are held in Iraq, but the number is believed to be much higher and could reach hundreds.
Suhaila Zein al-Abidine Hammad, a founder of National Society for Human Rights, one of two rights groups licensed by the Saudi kingdom, said the organisation had been concerned mainly by a move to implement death sentences that had been issued against Saudi nationals held in Iraq.
One of the inmates had been taken to solitary confinement, she said, a sign that he was about to be executed.
Hammad said some of those prisoners had received "arbitrary sentences" and that Saudi Arabia had been trying to bring them back homes so they can get fair trials.
Sunni-led Saudi Arabia has had uneasy relations with Iraq since the rise of Shi'ite Muslims to power in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is seen close to Shi'ite power Iran.
Riyadh and Baghdad agreed earlier this year to repatriate Saudi prisoners in what appeared as a signal of improved relations between the two countries. But the prisoner swap deal, which followed Saudi Arabia's naming of an ambassador to Baghdad for the first time since Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, never materialised.
Differences over a 19-month-old Syrian uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's rule have apparently put the brakes on the improvement in relations between the two countries. While Saudi Arabia backs Syrian rebels, Baghdad's position is seen close to Tehran's stance of refusing to endorse demands for the removal of Assad.
(Reporting by Sami Aboudi in Dubai and Raheem Salman in Baghdad; Editing by Jon Hemming)