updated 1/13/2005 6:30:52 PM ET 2005-01-13T23:30:52

A religious court has sentenced 15 Saudis, including a woman, to as many as 250 lashes each and up to six months in prison for participating in a protest against the monarchy, judicial officials said Thursday.

Men are lashed in public in Saudi Arabia but women receive the punishment inside a prison in the presence of female workers. Lashing is an unusual punishment for dissidents challenging the monarchy or calling for reforms. They usually just receive prison sentences.

A judge issued the verdict Monday against 15 of 21 people arrested during last month’s protest. Individuals were sentenced to one to six months in prison and from 100 to 250 lashes, a judicial official in Riyadh said on condition of anonymity. He would not disclose the individual sentences.

The trial of the remaining six will take place after a month, he said.

The daily Okaz newspaper on Tuesday quoted the Saudi prosecutor-general as saying he will appeal for a tougher punishment for the dissidents.

The 21 had attended a small anti-monarchy protest in the capital Dec. 16. The protests in Riyadh and the Red Sea city of Jiddah had been called by London-based dissident Saad al-Fagih, head of the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia.

In Jiddah, at least six people were seen being arrested and dozens were seen running from police.

Al-Fagih had called the protests through his satellite television and radio stations and Web site. In the group’s boldest challenge to the monarchy, its Web site spelled out “immediate procedures to be taken after the demise of Al Saud” royal family.

Al-Fagih’s movement says it seeks to replace the monarchy with a liberal, moderate system of government.

However, some Saudi intellectuals say the group is religiously conservative and that its true aim is to set up an Islamic government that would neither be liberal nor democratic.

Tough punishments
Saudi Arabia, which is home to Islam’s two holiest shrines and attracts millions of Muslim pilgrims annually, has harsh punishments for people who violate Sharia, or Islamic Law, including imprisonment public stoning, lashing or beheadings.

Last month, the British government froze the assets of Al-Fagih’s movement, a day after the United Nations imposed anti-terrorism sanctions on the group. The U.N. sanctions require states to impose a travel ban, arms embargo and a freeze of financial assets.

The U.S. Treasury said in December that al-Fagih shared an office in the late 1990s with Khaled al Fawwaz, who was allegedly an operative for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Britain.

Al-Fagih denies his organization has ever been involved in violence or linked to al-Qaida.

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