AWWAMIYA (Reuters) - Around 100 Saudi Shi‘ites staged a protest in Saudi Arabia’s oil-producing Eastern Province on Thursday, demanding the release of prisoners they say are being held without trial, witnesses said.
Mostly young men marched through the small town of Awwamiya, near the Shi‘ite centre of Qatif on the Gulf coast.
“Peaceful, peaceful,” the demonstrators shouted, holding up pictures of Shi‘ites they say have been long held without trial, while policemen stood by without interfering.
Last month, Saudi authorities released three prisoners after a previous protest by Shi‘ites in Awwamiya.
“They demand the release of prisoners, only this,” Zaki al-Saleh, an Shi‘ite activist and resident told reporters, although he did not participate in the demonstration.
A group of women also followed the protest.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy without an elected parliament that usually does not tolerate public dissent.
Saudi Arabia’s Shi‘ite minority mostly live in the Eastern province, 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.
Saudi Arabia applies an austere Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam and 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 denies these charges.
The demonstration was much smaller than protests staged in Awwamiya 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 their own 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.
Reporting by Ulf Laessing, editing by Elizabeth Fullerton