updated 12/16/2004 8:58:45 AM ET 2004-12-16T13:58:45

Forget what human rights organizations tell you about Saudi prisons. There is no torture, no abuse — just a nice, friendly atmosphere. That, at least, is what a documentary on state-run television would have Saudis believe.

The look inside Riyadh's al-Haer prison, shown on Tuesday evening, is part of a new anti-terrorism campaign. The kingdom's aim is to persuade young Saudis drawn to al-Qaeda and willing to play minor roles in attacks to give themselves up.

But marketing Saudi prisons is a hard sell. Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group, says torture is used in Saudi Arabia to extract confessions and to enforce discipline.

Perhaps for this reason, previous efforts to persuade militants to turn themselves in have not succeeded. Only six people took advantage of an month-long amnesty offered in the summer.

But on Wednesday one newspaper described the al-Haer as "a luxury hotel" and relayed statements from inmates praising the treatment they received.

"I'd heard there was torture and beating in prison and that had made me hesitate about giving myself up," said Fikri al-Faqih. "But now I've surrendered I found the situation different. The procedures are easy and there is no torture. If I had known it was so simple, I would have given myself up before."

If the authorities needed a reminder of the task they face, the documentary was broadcast only a week after suspected al-Qaeda militants stormed the US consulate in Jeddah.

"There's been criticism of what goes on in jails and now the government is on a PR campaign to improve the image," said a Riyadh lawyer. "But people don't take this [the film] seriously."

Mohsen al-Awaji, a former political prisoner who spent time in al-Haer, said it was possible that only inmates alleged to have blood on their hands would be tortured, with minor criminals being better treated.

© The Financial Times Ltd 2013. "FT" and "Financial Times" are trademarks of the Financial Times.


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