March 1, 2011 / 9:14 AM / 7 years ago

Saudi authorities detain Shi'ite cleric over sermon

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Saudi authorities detained a Shi’ite cleric in the Eastern Province after he called for a constitutional monarchy and an end to corruption and discrimination, human rights activists said on Tuesday.

The top oil exporter and U.S. ally is an absolute monarchy that applies an austere version of Sunni Islam and does not tolerate public dissent.

Its Shi’ite minority, believed to be 10-15 percent of the 18 million Saudi population, has long complained of discrimination, a charged denied by the authorities.

Tawfiq al-Amir, who has been detained before for speaking out about religious freedom, made his call in a Friday sermon in the eastern town of Hafouf. Security police detained him on Sunday, said Mohammad Gabran, a local rights activist.

“Previously his sole care was religious freedoms but in his last sermon he changed his direction and started demanding a constitutional monarchy,” Gabran said.

“He called me when they came to take him. They informed him they were state security and they came to take him.”

Officials at the General Directorate of Investigations, an investigative arm of the government, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Analysts say the government is anxious that unrest may spread from neighbouring Bahrain, where majority Shi’ites have been protesting against the Sunni government.

Thousands of people are circulating emailed petitions and support Facebook groups calling for reform, an end to corruption and a constitutional monarchy in Saudi Arabia.

Activists set up Facebook pages calling for protests on March 11 and 20 but many locals doubt that those protests will take place as the government closely monitors social media and would stop any attempt to protest.

“The Saudi government should listen to the demands of its citizens, not seek to stifle them,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher in a Human Rights Watch report.

“Calling for equal rights for an oppressed religious minority should not be a reason for harassment and arrest,” he said.

Reporting by Asma Alsharif; editing by Tim Pearce

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