Security forces in Saudi Arabia have detained dozens of men who had staged a protest near a prison in central Saudi Arabia to press for the release of relatives, demonstrators told the Reuters news agency.
The arrests were made on Monday after more than 100 people, including women and children, had staged a one-day protest in the desert around Tarfiya prison in central Qassim province.
Demonstrators said they had been confined by police without food or water for nearly a day.
It was a rare demonstration in the world’s biggest oil exporter, where protests are banned. The demonstration began on Sunday, which was the country’s national day.
In a separate gathering in Riyadh on Monday, dozens of protesters rallied in front of the government-linked Saudi Human Rights Commission also calling for the release of jailed relatives.
“There are some prisoners who have been tortured, some who have completed their sentences, others who have not been charged and even some who have been found innocent but are still imprisoned,” said one protester. “We will stay here until we are heard.”
Saudi Arabia, which has been a target for al-Qaeda attacks, says the protesters’ relatives are all being held on security grounds. Activists, however, say that some are also being held for political activity and have never been charged.
An interior ministry spokesman said those accused of “terrorism-related” crimes were undergoing fair judicial process.
“As for the the gathering of a limited number of relatives of the detained people at a prison, they have been stopped according to legal procedures and will be dealt with if they are found in violation of the laws,” the spokesman said.
For ‘religious beliefs’
Activists said police with shields and batons persuaded the protesters at the prison in Qassim province to go home, telling them their message had been heard and their demands would be looked into.
“When we left, the emergency forces followed our cars. They chased us and stopped us to detain the men,” said Reema al-Juraish, a protester whose husband is in the prison.
“I saw them grab five [men] and when I tried to intervene they pushed me and hit me with a baton.”
She said up to 60 men where arrested and taken to an unknown location.
Police also set up checkpoints on the two roads leading to the area and deployed patrols in the desert around it.
“The kingdom is celebrating national day even as our husbands are being held without charges and without trial,” Juraish told the AFP news agency.
She said her husband “has been detained for more than nine years without charge”, adding that she has not seen him in eight months.
Another protester, who asked not to be named, said her brother was sentenced to three years in prison and “has served his sentence but remains in jail”.
Her other brother, who was also detained by authorities, “died in custody due to lack of care”, she said, adding that both her brothers were arrested for their “religious beliefs”.
The kingdom, which has almost no elected bodies, avoided the kind of unrest that toppled leaders across the Arab world last year after it introduced generous social spending packages and issued a religious edict banning public demonstrations.
King Abdullah has pushed through some economic and social reforms, including cautious moves to improve the position of women and religious minorities, but he has left the political system untouched.
The world’s top oil exporter is an important ally of Western countries in battling al-Qaeda, which carried out a campaign of attacks in the kingdom from 2003-06.
Last year the interior ministry said it had put on trial 5,080 of nearly 5,700 people it had detained on security grounds.
In April, a court in Riyadh sentenced rights campaigner Mohammed al-Bajadi to four years in prison after he was accused of forming a human rights association, tarnishing Saudi Arabia’s reputation, questioning the independence of the judiciary, and owning illegal books, activists said.
He had been held for a year without charges after voicing support for prisoners’ families.
According to the non-governmental Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), the kingdom is currently holding some 30,000 political prisoners.