RIYADH (Reuters) - Dozens of Saudis protested at a prison in Qassim near the capital Riyadh on Sunday against the detention of their relatives in the Gulf kingdom where demonstrations are banned, protesters and a rights activist said.
Police restricted the protesters to a cordoned off area for six hours, they said. Demonstrations are rare in Saudi Arabia which escaped last year’s Arab Spring unrest but has faced criticism for its human rights record.
Activists say thousands of people are held without charge in the kingdom and human rights groups have accused the government of using its campaign against Islamist militants to imprison political dissidents.
“We will stay here and not move until they listen to our demands and that is the release of our jailed relatives,” said protester Reema al-Juraish, who said her husband, a nurse, has been held for eight years without charge.
“We have 60 men, 45 women and 13 children and we’ve been here without food or drink. The police said they would arrest anyone who tries to leave.”
A spokesman from the Interior Ministry did not respond to calls or messages requesting comment on the protests.
Saudi Arabia says it has no political prisoners.
Last year, the kingdom said it had put on trial 5,080 of nearly 5,700 people detained on security charges since a series of attacks against foreign and government targets since 2003.
The U.S. ally and world’s biggest oil exporter has played a critical role in helping Western intelligence agencies foil plots by al Qaeda. But rights groups have faulted it for a near total lack of democracy and intolerance of dissent.
In April, a court in Riyadh sentenced Mohammed al-Bajadi, a prominent rights campaigner, to four years in prison. He had been held for a year without charges after voicing support for families of prisoners demonstrating for the release of jailed relatives.
Saudi Arabia has avoided the kind of civil unrest that toppled leaders across the region last year after it announced massive social spending packages and issued a religious edict banning public demonstrations.
King Abdullah has pushed through some economic and social reforms in his seven-year reign, including cautious moves to improve the position of women and religious minorities, but he has left the political system untouched.
Writing by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Sophie Hares