We have seen riots in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain…and now Saudi Arabia? All of these countries have fallen victim to internal unrest because of both their lack of basic freedoms, and wealth disparity between the rich and the poor. All of the countries above are known to be wealthy oil nations, but more than 20% of the youth in each are unemployed. Grain prices in these areas have more than tripled, and food inflation is causing unrest. Shiites in Saudi Arabia have also claimed discrimination, as almost all senior businessmen and officials are Sunni Muslims, despite qualifications and experience. This has helped drive Brent crude prices to as high as $118, crippling both emerging and developing economies. Some are calling for a “day of rage” on March 11th, while others claim it will be delayed…
According to CNN, protesters in Saudi Arabia called for a “day of rage” Friday, though longtime observers of the kingdom remained sceptical that it would make a major impact. “I don’t think any protests that happen tomorrow will be destabilizing to the country,” said Christopher Boucek, a Saudi expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Prominent blogger Ahmed Al-Omran said the Saudi government remains unresponsive to the streets. “I don’t think they’re really in touch with the people,” he said. Still, he said, Friday’s planned protests could set the tone in Saudi Arabia for the next few months.
The Saudi government prohibits all kinds of public demonstrations. But more than 100 Shiite demonstrators defied that ban and rallied Wednesday in the eastern city of Qatif, calling on authorities to release Shiite prisoners. A sprinkling of women were among the protesters, said Ibrahim Al-Mugaiteeb, president of the Human Rights First Society. Police kept a watchful eye but did not intervene, he said. Earlier, Saudi authorities had authorised its security forces to “take all measures against anyone who tries to break the law and cause disorder.”
Last week, about 24 protesters were detained in Qatif as they denounced “the prolonged detention” of nine Shiite prisoners held without trial for more than 14 years, Amnesty International said. Police kicked and used batons to beat three protesters in what was an apparent peaceful demonstration, Amnesty said in a statement. “The Saudi Arabian authorities have a duty to ensure freedom of assembly and are obliged under international law to allow peaceful protests to take place,” said Philip Luther, deputy director of the human rights group’s Middle East and North Africa program. “They must act immediately to end this outrageous restriction on the right to legitimate protest.” There was no immediate reaction from the Saudi government to the Amnesty statement.
The protests in the majority Sunni kingdom have followed similar demands across the Arab world for more freedom and democracy. Rights activists have been advocating the right to protest for months in the kingdom but they have been denied permission to assemble. Lately, grass-roots ferment mirroring the unrest across the Middle East and North Africa has emerged, with a Facebook group calling for days of rage and Shiites taking to the streets. Activists have been calling for reform and the release of people jailed without charge or trial.
Amnesty said the recent detentions came a week after a prominent Shiite cleric, Sheikh Tawfiq Jaber Ibrahim al-‘Amr was arrested after a sermon calling for reforms in Saudi Arabia. He was released without charge Sunday. Most of the protesters are believed to be held in a police station in Dhahran, an eastern city. Among them are activists who have protested arrests and discrimination against the minority Shiites.
“The Saudi authorities must investigate reports of beatings of protesters by security forces. They should also ensure that those detained are either charged with recognisable offences and tried fairly or released,” Luther said. “While in detention they must be protected from torture and other ill-treatment and given regular access to their family, lawyers and medical staff.”
The Shiite activists in “prolonged detention” have been held in connection with the deadly 1996 bombing of a U.S. military complex in Khobar in which 20 people were killed and hundreds injured. “According to reports, they were interrogated, tortured and denied access to lawyers together with the opportunity to challenge the legality of their detention,” Amnesty said.
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