DUBAI: A Saudi writer has been sentenced to seven years in prison for offences including having contact with foreign journalists, a rights group said Thursday, part of what activists call "an intensified crackdown". The Gulf Centre for Human Rights said Nadhir Al-Majid, 40, received the sentence last week from the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh.

Rights monitors have criticized the practice of trying activists in such courts, which handle "terrorism" cases. "Reports have confirmed that the writer was alone during the hearing and not accompanied by his family or his lawyer," said the Gulf Centre, which has offices in Copenhagen and Beirut. It said the prosecution filed many charges against Majid, including participating in demonstrations and "having contact with correspondents" of foreign media organizations.

Another watchdog, Human Rights Watch, in 2011 identified Majid as one of more than 160 dissidents arrested, mostly in Eastern Province where the Shiite minority had protested for political reforms and the release of prisoners. He was freed in 2012, the Gulf Centre said. In early January London-based Amnesty International said "a string of activists" had been detained or appeared in court over previous weeks in connection with peaceful human rights work.

"Saudi Arabia's authorities have begun the year with an intensified crackdown against human rights activists", it said. On a visit to the kingdom last week, a United Nations independent expert called on Saudi Arabia to "liberalize" its approach to social media, where activists communicate. Philip Alston, the UN special reporter on extreme poverty and human rights, said he received reports of "instances in which it has cracked down on certain people" communicating over the internet.

Saudi vulnerable to 'Shamoon 2' virus

In other news, Saudi computer security systems are vulnerable to the "Shamoon 2" virus, a senior communications official warned Thursday, confirming reports of a fresh cyberattack on the kingdom.  The virus "has devised a new method that was unexpected by government systems", Abdulaziz Al-Ruwais, governor of the Commission for Communications and Information Technology, told Makkah newspaper.

He said that "some bodies had been affected" by the program, and detailed measures which companies could take to try to protect their computer networks.  Local media reported early this week that Shamoon 2 hit the private sector and various government agencies including a division of the labor ministry.  Global security firm Symantec on Monday did not mention Saudi Arabia but said it was "currently investigating reports of yet another new attack in the Middle East involving the destructive disk-wiping malware used by the Shamoon group".

The company in December said Shamoon had been used in attacks against targets in Saudi Arabia. Arab News reported at the time that the National Cyber Security Centre "detected destructive electronic strikes against several government agencies and vital establishments". In August, state media reported cyberattacks against government institutions and vital installations they did not identify.  Shamoon was employed in strikes against the Saudi energy sector in 2012.  At that time, US intelligence officials said they suspected a link to the kingdom's regional rival Iran. Ties between Riyadh and Tehran have worsened over the past year. - Agencies