SAUDI ARABIA: Demonstrators stage rare protests to demand release of political prisoners
Saudi Arabia has so far escaped the demonstrations and popular uprisings that are sweeping the region, but recent developments suggest the ultraconservative kingdom is not immune to protests and unrest.
Media reports say demonstrators took to the streets of areas of Saudi Arabia's oil-producing eastern province Thursday and Friday to demand the release of political prisoners they claim are being held without trial.
According to CNN, one of the main rallying points at Friday's protest was the outspoken Shiite prayer leader Sheikh Tawfeeq Amer who protesters claim was arrested Feb. 25 after calling in a sermon for Saudi Arabia to become a constitutional democracy.
The video above, posted on YouTube, claims to show prosteters marching in the streets in a town in the eastern province Friday to demand Amer's release.
The demonstration comes a day after around 100 Saudi Shiite Muslims gathered for a rally in the same province to call for the release of Shiite prisoners they say are being arbitraily held by the Saudi authorities.
A report from the Reuters news agency said young men were seen marching through Awwamiya, a town near Saudi Arabia's Shiite epicenter Qatif, chanting "Peaceful, peaceful" while waving pictures of Shiites they say have been detained unjustly. A group of policemen observed the protest without intervening, added the report.
Thurday's and Friday's protests, however, were reported to be much smaller in size than the demonstrations that occurred down in Awwamiya in 2009 after Saudi police launched a crackdown and search for the Shiite preacher Nimr Nimr, who back then had suggested in a sermon that Shiites could one day seek their own separate state.
The vast majority of Saudi Arabia's Shiite community lives in the country's eastern province -- home to most of the kingdom's vast oil resources and also near protest-stricken Bahrain, where members of the majority Shiite population recently have staged massive protests against their Sunni rulers.
Shiites in Saudi Arabia regularly complain about discrimination and say they still face restrictions in getting some jobs, although their situation has improved somewhat under King Abdullah and the reforms he has implemented. The government denies charges of such discrimination.
Last month, more than 100 Saudi activists and intellectuals called on the king to set up a constitutional monarchy and implement sweeping reforms.
--Alexandra Sandels in Beirut
Video credit: YouTube