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Dozens arrested after Saudi prison protest
JEDDAH (Reuters) - Security forces on Monday detained dozens of men who had staged a protest near a prison in central Saudi Arabia to press for the release of relatives, demonstrators and a rights activist said.
The arrests were made after police had confined the protesters, who included women and small children, to a desert area outside the prison where they were kept without food or water for nearly a day, protesters and activists said.
It was a rare demonstration in the world's biggest oil exporter, where protests are banned.
Saudi Arabia, which has been a target for al Qaeda attacks, say the protesters' relatives are all being held on security grounds. But activists say some are also held for purely political activity and have never been charged.
An Interior Ministry spokesman said those accused of "terrorism-related" crimes were undergoing fair judicial process.
"As for the gathering of a limited number of relatives of the detained people at a prison, they have been stopped according to legal procedures and will be dealt with if they are found in violation of the laws," the spokesman said.
Activists said police with shields and batons persuaded the protesters at the prison to go home, telling them their message had been heard and their demands would be looked into.
"When we left the 'Emergency Forces' followed our cars. They chased us and stopped us to detain the men," said Reema al-Juraish, a protesters whose husband is in the prison.
"I saw them grab five and when I tried to intervene they pushed me and hit me with a baton."
She said up to 60 men where arrested and taken to an unknown location.
More than 100 people, including women and children, had staged a one-day protest in the desert around Tarfiya prison in the Qassim province but were surrounded by police. They said they had been kept without food or water for almost a full day.
Police set up checkpoints on the two roads leading to the area and deployed patrols in the desert around it, they said.
The kingdom, which has almost no elected bodies, avoided the kind of unrest that toppled leaders across the Arab world last year after it introduced generous social spending packages and issued a religious edict banning public demonstrations.
King Abdullah has pushed through some economic and social reforms, including cautious moves to improve the position of women and religious minorities, but he has left the political system untouched.
The world's top oil exporter is an important ally of Western countries in battling al Qaeda, which carried out a campaign of attacks in the kingdom from 2003-06.
Last year the Interior Ministry said it had put on trial 5,080 of nearly 5,700 people it had detained on security grounds.
In April, a court in Riyadh sentenced rights campaigner Mohammed al-Bajadi to four years in prison after he was accused of forming a human rights association, tarnishing Saudi Arabia's reputation, questioning the independence of the judiciary, and owning illegal books, activists said.
He had been held for a year without charges after voicing support for prisoners' families.
In a separate gathering on Monday, dozens of protesters rallied in front of the government-linked Saudi Human Rights Commission also calling for the release of jailed relatives.
"There are some prisoners who have been tortured, some who have completed their sentences, others who have not been charged and even some who have been found innocent but are still imprisoned. We will stay here until we are heard," said one protester who declined to be named.
Saudi Arabia denies torturing prisoners.
(Additional reporting by Angus McDowall, Writing by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Angus MacSwan)
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