Saudi women demand release of prisoners held in anti-terrorism campaign

By Ulf Laessing and Asma Alsharif
Saturday, February 5, 2011; 7:20 PM

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA - About 40 women staged a rare demonstration in the Saudi capital Saturday, demanding the release of prisoners being held without trial as part of the kingdom's efforts to fight al-Qaeda insurgents, activists said.

The black-clad women gathered in front of the Interior Ministry in central Riyadh amid a heavy police presence. One held up a poster reading, "God, free our prisoners."

Activist Mohammed al-Qahtani said later that the women's focus was on those imprisoned in a campaign against terrorism in 2003-04. "Many people have been held for a long time without trial or have nothing to do with al-Qaeda," he said.

Amnesty International and other human rights groups have accused Saudi Arabia of detaining thousands of pro-reform activists in its operation against al-Qaeda suspects, an assertion the government denies.

A Saudi security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said about 20 women had gathered to demand the release of their relatives. They were told that only the courts can make that decision, the official said, adding that the government is helping the women financially while their relatives are in jail.

The protests occurred as hundreds of thousands of people have rallied in the streets in Tunisia and Egypt against poverty, unemployment and authoritarian rule.

In another unusual sign of rising discontent in Saudi Arabia, a group of Saudi Web activists has launched an online campaign calling for political reform in the world's biggest oil exporter.

The Saudi campaign, launched Jan. 29 on Facebook, calls for a constitutional monarchy, an end to corruption, an even distribution of wealth and a serious solution for unemployment, among other demands.

"Before it is too late, I call the government, and the king, to reform the country and heed our requests . . . if they wish to continue ruling this country," one group member, Safaa Jaber, posted on the group's Facebook wall Friday.

Activists in Egypt have used social media sites to rally supporters and coordinate protests.

Saudi Arabia does not allow public dissent. Last month, police detained dozens in the port city of Jiddah after they protested against poor infrastructure following deadly floods.

- Reuters

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