February 3, 2014 - 23:02 AMT
PanARMENIAN.Net - Saudi Arabia will jail for 3-20 years any citizen who fights in conflicts abroad, according to a royal decree released on Monday, in an apparent move to deter Saudis from joining rebels in Syria and then posing a security risk once they return home, Reuters reports.
Saudi Arabia's Islamic religious authorities have previously spoken out against Saudis joining Islamist militants involved in Syria's civil war, but the Interior Ministry estimates that around 1,200 Saudis have gone there nonetheless.
The decree underscored concern about young Saudis hardened by battle against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad coming home to target the ruling Al Saud royal family - as happened after earlier wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Saudi Arabia is the world's No. 1 oil exporter and a mainstay ally of the United States in the Middle East.
"(Saudi leaders) have to be concerned about Syria. They're probably mindful about what happened in Afghanistan and the people who went there and later came back to cause problems," said Robert Jordan, U.S. ambassador to Riyadh from 2001-03.
Major General Mansour Turki, Saudi Arabia's security spokesman, told Reuters on Sunday that 200-300 citizens had returned from Syria and would be put through the kingdom's rehabilitation program for militants.
The decree also said Saudis who join, endorse or give moral or material aid to groups it classifies as terrorist or extremist organizations, whether inside or outside the country, would face prison sentences of between five and 30 years.
The announcement came quickly on the heels of the publication on Friday of a new anti-terrorism law that has been condemned by rights activists as a tool to stifle dissent.
The new decree said a committee would be set up to determine which groups would be outlawed, but it could help Riyadh target two movements it sees as particularly dangerous - Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and the Lebanese Shi'ite Hezbollah.
Over the past decade Saudi Arabia has imprisoned thousands of people convicted of working with al Qaeda after the Sunni Islamist militant group staged attacks inside the kingdom from 2003-06 that killed hundreds.
Rights groups have said some of those Riyadh imprisoned on those charges had merely called for political change in a peaceful manner, a charge the government has repeatedly denied.
In the past year Saudi authorities have also been criticized by international rights groups for jailing several prominent activists on charges ranging from setting up an illegal organization to damaging the reputation of the country.