Shi'ites stage protests in Saudi oil province

Demonstrators demand the release of prisoners they say are being held without trial; call for equality from Sunni monarchy.

By REUTERS
March 3, 2011 23:39
3 minute read.
Saudi King Abdullah

Saudi King Abdullah 311 Reuters. (photo credit: REUTERS)

QATIF, Saudi Arabia - Saudi Shi'ites staged protests in two towns in Saudi Arabia's oil-producing Eastern Province on Thursday, demanding the release of prisoners they say are being held without trial.

Demonstrations of about 100 people were seen in the small Gulf coast town of Awwamiya, as well as in the nearby Shi'ite centre of Qatif, demanding the release of those the protesters say were arrested for security reasons and held, in some cases, for more than a decade.

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"We want the prisoners free but we also have other demands," said Radi al-Suwaileh, who was in the Qatif march. "We want equality."

They are calling for better access to jobs and to be treated as equals in the ultraconservative kingdom dominated by a rigid form of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism. Shi'ites say that, while their situation has improved under reforms launched by King Abdullah, they still face restrictions in getting senior government jobs.

The government of Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy without an elected parliament that usually does not tolerate public dissent, denies these charges.

"We want jobs. I graduated from a US university but did not get a job for 10 months," said one young man who gave his name as Muhammad.

Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite minority mostly live in the east, which holds much of the oil wealth of the world's top crude exporter and is near Bahrain, scene of protests by majority Shi'ites against their Sunni rulers.

More than 2 million Shi'ites are thought to live in the area, and in recent years they have increasingly practised their own religious rites thanks to the King's reforms.

PROTESTERS SAY DON'T SEEK SYSTEM CHANGE

"We want freedom, we want equality," one woman chanted.

Another clad in black, who called herself Umm Turki, said she wanted her husband, in prison for 13 years, back.

"Peaceful, peaceful," demonstrators in Awwamiya shouted, holding up pictures of Shi'ites they say have been long held without trial, while policemen stood nearby without interfering.

One held a placard saying: "We do not plan to overthrow the system".

In Qatif, a 10 minute drive away, riot police wearing helmets arrived in two troop transport vehicles, blocking protesters from moving further on a main thoroughfare.

Some wielded signs saying: "The reform movement wants reforms", "God is great" and "We want our prisoners free".

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Last month, Saudi authorities released three prisoners after a previous protest by Shi'ites in Awwamiya.

Last week, King Abdullah returned to Riyadh after a three-month medical absence and unveiled $37 billion in benefits to help lower- and middle-income people among the 18 million Saudi nationals. It includes pay rises to offset inflation, unemployment benefits and affordable family housing.

The demonstrations in and near Qatif were much smaller than protests staged in 2009 after police launched a search for firebrand Shi'ite preacher Nimr al-Nimr, who had suggested in a sermon that Shi'ites could one day seek a separate state.

The secessionist threat, which analysts say was unprecedented since the 1979 Iranian revolution, provoked anti-government protests, and was followed by clashes between the Sunni religious police and Shi'ite pilgrims near the tomb of Prophet Mohammad in the holy city of Medina.

Since then, Shi'ites say the situation has calmed down but they are still waiting for promised reforms to be carried out.


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