By Mahmoud Habboush
DUBAI (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has passed landmark legislation aimed at protecting women, children and domestic workers against domestic abuse, a human rights official said on Thursday, in a move aimed at reducing hidden violence against women in the kingdom.
The "Protection from Abuse" law is the first of its kind in the ultra-conservative country, which has often faced international criticism for lacking laws that protect women and domestic workers against abuse.
The law, approved during a cabinet meeting on August 26, came several months after a local charity launched a nationwide campaign to combat violence against women.
Under the 17-article bill, those found guilty of committing psychological or physical abuse could face prison sentences of up to one year and up to 50,000 riyals ($13,300) in fines.
"This is a good law that serves major segments of the society in the kingdom, including women, children, domestic workers and non-domestic workers," Khaled al-Fakher, secretary general of the National Society for Human Rights, a government-licensed body, told Reuters.
Previously, domestic violence against women, children or domestic workers was treated under a general penal code based on Islamic sharia law.
Judges were left to decide according to their understanding of sharia codes, which were seen as permitting mild application of violence against "disobedient" wives and generally treated domestic violence as a private matter.
"We are always in favor of an explicit law that does not need interpretations or personal judgment," said Fakher, whose organization helped draft the law.
The United Nations urged the kingdom, a U.S. ally which follows the strict Wahhabi school of Islam, to create laws to protect women as early as 2008.
The Supreme Judicial Council in 2007 condemned a 19-year-old woman to 200 lashes and six months in jail on a charge of having been with a man she was not related to after she was attacked and gang-raped. She was pardoned by King Abdullah.
The King Khalid Foundation in April launched an unprecedented campaign to raise awareness about violence against women. The campaign's main poster, which featured a woman wearing a veil that showed one of her eyes blackened, was widely circulated on the Internet.
Underneath the picture, a caption read: "Some things can't be covered - fighting women's abuse together."
Fakher said one reason domestic violence was rampant in Saudi Arabia was because tribal traditions prevented women from reporting abuse for fear of social stigma.
"Women think what the community would say about her if she filed a complaint," he said.
There has also been an increase in reports of cases of domestic abuse in which families mistreat their maids, sometimes resulting in them turning on the children of their employers.
Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan maid, was beheaded in the town of Dawadmy, near the capital Riyadh, in January after she was sentenced to death in 2007. She was accused by her employer of killing his infant daughter while she was bottle-feeding.
The law gives those who report abuse the right to remain anonymous, as well as immunity from litigation should abuse fail to be proven in a court. It also urges witnesses to report abuse without having to disclose their identity, which Fakher said is a significant part of the law.
Rights activist Waleed Abu al-Khair said the new law gives women some independence.
"Women were required to bring in a male relative if they showed up at a police station to file a complaint," Abu al-Khair said. This will not now be necessary, he said.
The law could be a step towards changing current regulations which require women to get approval of male guardians - fathers, husbands or sons - to carry out business, apply for jobs or travel outside the country, Abu al-Khair said.
($1 = 3.7505 Saudi riyals)
(Editing by Sami Aboudi and Sonya Hepinstall)