35 Christians face deportation from Saudi
Dubai - Thirty-five Ethiopian Christians, 29 of them women, face deportation from Saudi Arabia for "illicit mingling" after police raided a private prayer gathering, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Monday.
The New York-based watchdog said the women were subjected to "unwarranted strip search", while the men were beaten and insulted as "unbelievers".
The group was arrested on December 15 in a private home in Jeddah as they gathered to pray ahead of Christmas in the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom which bans the practice of any religious rites except those of Islam.
"While King Abdullah sets up an international interfaith dialogue centre, his police are trampling on the rights of believers of others faiths," said HRW senior Middle East researcher Christoph Wilcke.
"The Saudi government needs to change its own intolerant ways before it can promote religious dialogue abroad," he added in a statement.
HRW said it spoke to three members of the group - two women and one man.
Those who were taken to court have been told that they were being charged with "illicit mingling" of unmarried persons of the opposite sex.
At Buraiman prison, officers forced women to strip and an officer "inserted her finger into each of the women's genitals, under the pretext of searching for illegal substances", HRW said citing the two women.
"She wore a plastic glove that she did not change," it added.
At the male prison, officers "kicked and beat the men, and insulted them as 'unbelievers'" the man in custody told HRW by telephone.
HRW said that Saudi Arabia has no codified criminal law that defines "illicit mingling", calling on authorities to release the Ethiopian men and women "immediately if there is no evidence to charge them with offences that are recognisably criminal under international norms".
It also urged Riyadh to investigate allegations of "physical and sexual abuse".