JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - International human rights groups have asked Saudi Arabia for permission to observe the court cases of four rights activists in a country they have accused of conducting unfair trials.
Saudi lawyer Walid Abu al-Khair, writer Mikhlif al-Shammari, and professors and rights advocates Abdullah al-Hamid and Mohammad al-Qahtani face charges that include tarnishing the reputation of the state, cooperating with international rights organizations and encouraging protests, according to court documents seen by Reuters.
Two of the six groups seeking access, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have in the past criticized the conservative Islamic monarchy for holding trials they say are unfair, and have accused it of jailing political prisoners.
A Saudi Justice Ministry spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on the trials or on the rights groups' request to monitor them, but the Interior Ministry says there are no political prisoners in the kingdom.
"These individuals have, over the past years, advocated greater respect for the human rights of people in Saudi Arabia ... They now find themselves facing criminal charges stemming from their human rights activities," said the letter sent to Justice Minister Mohammed al-Issa.
The rights groups added that they wanted to watch the trials of the four activists to learn how the conservative Islamic monarchy handles such cases.
Judges in Saudi Arabia have the right to bar observers from the court and requests by human rights groups to visit the kingdom have been denied in the past, Abu al-Khair said.
The trial of one of the rights advocates, Shammari, is in a specialized criminal court set up to handle security-related cases. Such trials are closed to the public and only selected local media and the government-linked Human Rights Commission are allowed access by the Interior Ministry to some of the sessions.
Human rights lawyers have complained that they are prevented from meeting their clients.
The other four groups that signed the letter are Front Line Defenders, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Alkarama, which is a Switzerland-based organization focusing on Arab countries, and the Gulf Center for Human Rights.
In April a court in the Saudi capital Riyadh sentenced Mohammed al-Bajadi, a prominent rights campaigner, to four years in prison.
Bajadi had already been held for a year without charge after he voiced support for families protesting outside the Interior Ministry, calling for the release of their jailed relatives.
In November a Saudi court sentenced 17 men, most of them activists, academics and lawyers, to prison terms of up to 30 years for sedition and other offences, including charges of aiding Islamist militants.
Amnesty International described the trial as "grossly unfair". Saudi Arabia rebutted the accusations, saying they were based on "inaccurate information" and expressing a commitment to "human rights in accordance with Islamic sharia".
(Reporting by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Angus McDowall and Mark Heinrich)