ABU DHABI/LONDON: Saudi police arrested 176 people in the Gulf Arab kingdom’s central Qassim province Friday after a protest calling for fair treatment for security prisoners.
State news agency SPA said that those detained, who included 15 women, had refused to disperse from a sit-in staged outside the investigation and prosecution bureau in the town of Buraida.
It was the latest in a string of small-scale demonstrations in Qassim and the capital Riyadh in the past two years demanding better treatment of prisoners held on security grounds.
Rights groups say thousands have been detained in the name of security in Saudi Arabia – an ultra-conservative kingdom Britain’s Prince Charles and his wife Camilla have added to their Middle East tour this month.
Many of them have been imprisoned without a fair hearing or held for long periods without trial. Rights groups say some were detained merely for demanding political change.
The authorities deny holding political prisoners and say all the security detainees are suspected Islamist militants. They have said more than 5,000 people were detained last year in a crackdown on the militants and most had already been tried.
SPA news agency quoted a police spokesman in the Qassim region as saying that those detained Friday “refused to respond to instructions and attempts by security personnel for more than 12 hours to get them to end their informal gathering.”
The sit-in was “an attempt to rouse public opinion by exploiting the cases of a number of persons convicted or accused of crimes or activities of a deviant group,” the spokesman said.
Conservative Sunni clerics hold powerful positions in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. However, some have also opposed the ruling family on issues ranging from social reform to the campaign against Islamist radicals.
All protests in Saudi Arabia are illegal. The government says it does not mistreat prisoners.
The kingdom cracked down on Islamist militants after a series of Al-Qaeda attacks on government and Western targets from 2003 to 2005. Although militants inside the kingdom were crushed, some fled to Yemen to set up a new wing of Al-Qaeda that swore to bring down the Saudi ruling family.
The heir to the British throne will visit Saudi Arabia with his wife as part of their nine-day tour between March 11-19, which will also include Jordan, Qatar and Oman, palace officials confirmed Thursday.
The palace said Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, a key trade and defense partner, was underpinned by a “close personal friendship” between the royal families of the two countries.