Saudi Arabia has passed legislation aimed at protecting women, children and domestic staff against domestic abuse, a human rights official said on Thursday.
The protection from abuse law is the first of its kind in a country that has often been criticised for lacking legislation that protects women and domestic workers against abuse.
The law, which was approved during a cabinet meeting on 26 August, came several months after a local charity launched a nationwide campaign to combat violence against women.
Under the 17-article legislation, those found guilty of committing psychological or physical abuse could face prison sentences of up to one year and up to 50,000 riyals (£8,600) in fines.
"This is a good law that serves major segments of the society in the kingdom, including women, children, domestic workers and non-domestic workers," said Khaled al-Fakher, secretary general of the National Society for Human Rights, a government-licensed body.
Previously, domestic violence against women, children or workers was treated under a general penal code based on sharia law.
Judges were left to decide according to their understanding of sharia codes, which were seen as permitting mild violence against "disobedient" wives and generally treated domestic violence as a private matter.
"We are always in favour of an explicit law that does not need interpretations or personal judgment," said Fakher, whose organisation helped draft the law.
Since 2008 the UN has urged Saudi Arabia, a US ally which follows the strict Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, to create laws to protect women.
Supreme Judicial Council in 2007 condemned a 19-year-old woman to 200 lashes and six months in jail on a charge of having been with a man she was not related to after she was attacked and gang-raped. She was pardoned by King Abdullah.
In April this year, the King Khalid Foundation launched a campaign in Saudi Arabia to raise awareness about violence against women. The campaign's main poster features a woman in veil with bruising around one eye.
Underneath a caption says: "Some things can't be covered - fighting women's abuse together."
Fakher said one reason domestic violence was widespread in Saudi Arabia was because tribal traditions prevented women from reporting abuse for fear of social stigma. "Women think what the community would say about her if she filed a complaint," he said.
There has also been an increase in reports of cases of domestic abuse in which families mistreat their domestic staff. , sometimes resulting in them turning on the children of their employers
Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan, was beheaded in Dawadmy, near the capital, Riyadh, in January after she was sentenced to death in 2007. She was accused by her employer of killing his infant daughter while she was bottle-feeding.
The law gives those who report abuse the right to remain anonymous, as well as immunity from litigation should abuse fail to be proven in a court. It also urges witnesses to report abuse without having to disclose their identity, which Fakher said is a significant part of the law.
Rights activist Waleed Abu al-Khair said the law gives women some independence: "Women were required to bring in a male relative if they showed up at a police station to file a complaint," he said. This will not now be necessary.
The law could be a step towards changing current regulations which require women to get approval of male guardians – fathers, husbands or sons – to carry out business, apply for jobs or travel outside the country, Khair said.