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Saudi Shi'ites rally for second day to call for rights

RIYADH (Reuters) - Hundreds of Saudi Shi’ites protested in the oil-producing east for a second day on Friday, calling for the release of prisoners held without trial and political and religious rights, activists said.

The protesters took to the streets in the Shi’ite Muslim center of Qatif in Eastern Province and in the nearby village of Awwamiya. They carried banners showing solidarity with the Shi’ites of neighboring Bahrain who have been targeted by police after the government cracked down on a protest movement.

The rally was a continuation of protests held in Qatif and Awwamiya a day earlier calling for release of detainees, an end of arbitrary arrests, and political and religious freedoms including an end to official ban on protests.

“The rally was in a main street in Qatif... They were showing solidarity with the Bahraini people and also calling for the release of some prisoners held for over 16 years without a trial,” one activist told Reuters by telephone.

He said the two-hour rally had around 400-500 protesters who did not clash with police forces stationed around the area.

Another activist, in the village of Awwamiya, said he took part in a rally that also had around 400-500 protestors and also avoided conflict with police.

“They were calling for human rights and showing solidarity with the Bahraini people as well as calling for reforms in Saudi Arabia and the release of prisoners,” he said. “The security forces were very close but there were no clashes.”

A police spokesperson in Eastern Province did not answer requests for comment.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter and major U.S. ally, is an absolute Sunni Muslim monarchy that tolerates no form of dissent. It has not seen the kind of mass uprisings that have rocked other autocratic Arab elites in the last few months.

Shi’ites in Eastern Province have long complained of discrimination, a charge denied by the government.

They have held some protests over the past few weeks resulting in police detentions of some demonstrators, but almost no Saudis answered a Facebook call for protests in Sunni cities in the kingdom on March 11, amid a high security presence.

On Wednesday activists in Eastern Province said the Saudi authorities released 13 Shi’ite prisoners who were detained after taking part in demonstrations last month. Many others are still in custody, they said.