March 20, 2011 / 11:27 AM / 6 years ago

Saudis gather to demand release of prisoners

3 Min Read

RIYADH (Reuters) - Dozens of Saudi men gathered outside the Interior Ministry in the capital Riyadh on Sunday to demand the release of jailed relatives, amid a heavy police presence.

Some were seen arguing with police but were not shouting slogans or holding protest signs. At least 50 police cars surrounded the ministry, and three men were seen by a Reuters witness being put into police cars.

"We have seen at least three or four police vehicles taking people away," said an activist there who declined to be named. "Security have arrested around 15 people. They tried to go into the ministry to go and ask for the freedom of their loved ones."

Dozens of men in traditional white robes and red headdresses gathered outside while a large number of police and security forces watched.

Saudi Arabia, which practices the puritanical Wahhabi school of Islam and has no elected parliament, has warned those seeking reform that protests will not be tolerated, as they violate the Koran's teachings.

The men gathered at the interior ministry two days after Saudi Arabia's ruler, King Abdullah, offered $93 billion-worth of wage increases, jobs and construction projects, but gave no political concessions.

Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki could not confirm the arrests.

"There are many people who come to the ministry to see different officials for different reason," he told Reuters.

Dissent Building

Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, has not seen the kind of mass uprisings that have rocked the Arab world this year, but dissent has built up as unrest has taken root in neighboring Yemen, Bahrain and Oman.

Saudi Arabia has a fast-growing population, and two thirds of its 25 million citizens are under 30.

"It is a human rights issue and unless it is sorted out the gatherings will continue," said a Saudi-based political analyst who declined to be named.

"These Saudis do have issues with their relatives being held for a number of years... we need more transparency on this.

"I never expected to see a mass movement in Saudi Arabia. People accept the system but people want a better system."

Protests planned earlier this month did not materialize amid a heavy police crackdown that appeared to have intimidated most potential protesters. Shi'ites have staged marches in Eastern Province, however, where most of the kingdom's oil fields are located.

Editing by Andrew Roche

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