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Latest news from Saudi Arabia

A human rights group appealed to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah yesterday to stop the execution of a woman accused of witchcraft.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said that Fawza Falih was never given the chance to prove her innocence in the face of "absurd charges that have no basis in law".

It said that to convict her in April 2006, the judges in the northern town of Quraiyat had relied upon Falih's coerced confession and on statements from witnesses who said she had "bewitched" them.

Falih, who is illiterate, later retracted her confession, claiming it was extracted under duress by the kingdom's religious police, and that she did not understand the document she was forced to fingerprint.

Saudi Arabia's religious police are zealously enforcing a ban on Valentine's Day symbols in the austere Muslim kingdom.

But in other Gulf Arab countries, celebrations of the traditional lovers' day are now common and appear to be gaining acceptance.

"We have not been selling red roses for a week and we will not bring in any until Valentine's Day is over," said Alan, a Filipino working at a flower shop in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

He said a member of the religious police, known as Muttawa, visited the shop a week ago and ordered the florists not to display any red roses in the runup to February 14.

At a gift shop in the city, a salesman said the Muttawa had told him to remove from the shelves any red-colour gifts symbolising the feast of love.

An American woman who was arrested and strip-searched by religious police in Saudi Arabia for drinking coffee at a Starbucks with a male colleague says she is determined to stay in the strict Islamic kingdom to challenge its rules.

Yara, 37, went to the Starbucks on Monday with her business associate to get some work done and use the internet after a power failure shut down her office. While the two were sitting in the curtained-off family section of the Starbucks, the country's bearded religious police entered and arrested her for being with a man other than her husband.

Reports in the Saudi press say religious police detained her for immoral behavior, took her cell phone, strip-searched her, kept her from calling her husband and prevented her from seeing a lawyer.

Mr Mitchell, 52, was falsely accused of being involved in a car bombing in Saudi Arabia in 2000 when he was working there as an anaesthetic technician.

He was held in prison for three years and tortured until he eventually signed a confession, which he later had to read out on Saudi television.

A sharia court sentenced him to having his head partially severed, followed by public crucifixion.

The sentence was later reduced to beheading, before the Saudi authorities finally conceded that al-Qa'eda terrorists had planted the bomb and let Mr Mitchell return home to Halifax, West Yorks.

A Saudi woman has been sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in prison after she was the victim of a gang rape.

The sentence against the 19-year-old Shia woman from Qatif, in the Eastern Province of the country, was passed because she was in the car of a man who was not a relative at the time of the attack, which contravened strict Saudi laws on segregation.

A court had originally sentenced the woman to 90 lashes and the rapists to jail terms of between 10 months and five years but increased the punishment after an appeal, saying the woman had tried to use the media to influence them.

According to the Arab News newspaper, the woman was gang-raped 14 times.

Her offence was in meeting a former boyfriend, whom she had asked to return pictures he had of her because she was about to marry another man.

The couple was sitting in a car when a group of seven Sunni men kidnapped them and raped them both, lawyers in the case told Arab News.

Some of these stories are beyond belief. In fact, the majority of the stories on Google News don't exactly bathe the country in a great light. I think Saudi Arabia needs to sort out its public relations.

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