Women clad in black gathered in front of the Interior Ministry in central Riyadh watched by a heavy police presence, a Reuters correspondent said. “God, free our prisoners,” read one poster held up by a woman.
“The women demand to free people imprisoned in the campaign against terrorism. Many people have been held up for a long time without trial, or have nothing to do with al-Qaeda,” activist Mohammed al-Qahtani told Reuters by telephone later. A Saudi security official, who spoke on a condition of anonymity, said about 20 women gathered to demand the release of their relatives, held on suspicion of having ties to al-Qaeda.
The women were told that only the courts have the right to decide on the issue, the official said, adding the government is helping the women financially while their relatives are in jail.
Amnesty International and other human rights activists have accused Saudi Arabia of having detained thousands of reform activists in its sweep against al-Qaeda which staged a campaign inside the kingdom from 2003-06. Riyadh denies this. The protests took place at a time when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have rallied in the streets protesting against poverty, unemployment and authoritarian rule in Tunisia and Egypt, sending shock waves through the Arab world. In a rare sign of rising discontent in Saudi Araba, a group of Saudi web activists also launched an online campaign calling for political reform in the world’s biggest oil exporter.