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Pressure mounts on Saudi Arabia to ease protest ban

March 09, 2011

Human Rights
Emirati blogger and human rights activist Ahmed Mansour speaks as the director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, Sarah Leah Whitson listens on, during a press conference in Dubai on January 26, 2011, where the New-York based watchdog accused authorities in the United Arab Emirates of harassing rights activists and curbing freedom of expression. - AFP Photo

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia came under renewed pressure Wednesday to ease its ban on demonstrations, as Facebook activists called for a “Day of Rage” and a “Saudi revolution” later this week.

With the tightly controlled kingdom's security forces poised to crack down on any unauthorised demonstrations, US-based lobby group Human Rights Watch added its voice to demands for a relaxation of the protest ban.

“Saudi Arabia should rescind its categorical ban on peaceful demonstrations,” it said in a statement.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch director of the Middle East region, added: “By banning all protests Saudi rulers are telling their countrymen and women that for all political purposes they are not citizens and have no right to participate in public affairs.”

The interior ministry issued a stern reminder Saturday that any demonstration was illegal and warned activists that the security forces had been authorised to crack down on protests.

Cyber activists have called for a “Day of Rage” after prayers this Friday, on a Facebook page that had amassed over 31,000 “likes” by Wednesday. Another page calls for a “Saudi revolution” to begin on March 20.

The activists in both pages are calling for political and economic reforms, jobs, freedom and women's rights.

Several hundred Shiites protested last Friday in the Eastern Province calling for the release of an arrested Shiite cleric, Sheikh Tawfiq al-Aamer, and other detainees, witnesses said.

Twenty-six people were were arrested and later freed, according to a rights activist who described their release as “a very positive step.” Aamer was released late Sunday, the activist said.

Amnesty International deputy regional director Philip Luther said Tuesday the Saudi authorities were “obliged under international law to allow peaceful protests to take place.”

“They must act immediately to end this outrageous restriction on the right to legitimate protest,” he said.

Saudi Arabia's top clerics on Sunday condemned as un-Islamic calls for demonstrations and petitions demanding reforms in the ultra-conservative kingdom, which is an absolute monarchy.

The Council of Senior Scholars said in a statement that “reform and advice do not take place through demonstrations and methods that fan sedition.” Political parties are banned in Saudi Arabia, which controls a quarter of the world's oil reserves.

Unemployment among the youth stands at 10 percent and women are largely kept out of the workforce.