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(Cairo) - Saudi Arabia should rescind its categorical ban on peaceful demonstrations and release the more than 20 protesters detained on March 3, 2011, in the eastern town of Qatif, Human Rights Watch said today.

Saudi Arabia is one of only two countries in the Middle East and North Africa that ban protests as a matter of principle; Oman is the other. Saudi Arabia is not party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protect the right to peaceful assembly, but in 2009 the country acceded to the Arab Charter for Human Rights, which also guarantees this right.

"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," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Saudis have had enough of unaccountable rulers telling them to do as they are told and shut up."

On March 4 the state-appointed imam of the Mosque of the Prophet, Ali al-Huthaifi, described those calling for a constitutional monarchy in Saudi Arabia as "seditious," Sabq news website reported.

On March 5 the interior ministry released a statement saying that "the current regulations in the kingdom categorically prohibit all types of demonstrations and marches and protests, and the call for them, because they contradict the principles of the Islamic Shari'a and the values and customs of Saudi society." Such protests, the statement continued, lead to "chaos" and the "spilling of blood," the Saudi Press Agency reported.

On March 6 the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, which is appointed by the king and interprets religious law binding on the country, also stated that public protests were "un-Islamic," Agence France-Press reported.

Saudi intellectuals have questioned the evidence in Shari'a banning such protests. Writing in al-Ru'iya online magazine, a professor of Islamic jurisprudence, Abd al-Karim al-Khadhr, one of the persons intending to found the Islamic Nation Party, the country's first political party, said that if a protest's goals are legitimate, then a protest is a legitimate means of reaching them.

On March 3 and 4 in Qatif, a town in the Eastern Province mainly populated by Shi'a, peaceful protesters, for a second week, called on authorities to release nine "forgotten" detainees suspected of involvement in attacks against a US military installation in Khobar in 1996, which killed 19. The nine have never been charged or tried during their more than 13 years in detention.

On March 4 a group of Saudis also demonstrated in Riyadh calling for the release of thousands of people detained for years without charge or trial on suspicion of involvement in militant activity.

Police arrested over 20 protesters on the street in Qatif, including prominent intellectuals such as Husain ‘Alaq, a Saudi rights activist told Human Rights Watch. He added that at least one person was arrested in Riyadh, Muhammad al-Wad'ani, who the activist said was among the organizers of the protest.

The interior ministry in its statement called the goals of the protesters "not legitimate."

In response, a group of Sunni and Shi'a Saudi human rights activists on March 6 issued a statement affirming the peaceful nature of their protests and calling for the release of protesters arrested in Qatif and elsewhere.

"Detention for years without charge or trial is arbitrary by any standard," Whitson said. "Saudi authorities only compound the abuse when they call protests against them illegitimate."

Over the past two weeks groups of Saudis have sent several petitions to the king calling for reform, such as introducing a constitutional monarchy and elections of members of the Shura Council, a body appointed by the king that fulfills some functions of a parliament.

On March 2 an editor of the Al-Watan newspaper informed three writers for the newspaper who signed one of the petitions - Amal Zahid, Amira Kashghari, and another who preferred to remain anonymous that they were barred from writing and placed on leave. The editor informed Zahid, according to a message Human Rights Watch has seen, that "with my greatest apology and for reasons I do not yet know, I have received instructions from the chief editor to inform you to take leave in the current period before returning to writing in the near future."

Al-Riyadh newspaper on March 6 reminded readers that the Bureau of Investigations and Public Prosecutions, a body under the interior ministry, has jurisdiction under the 2007 law on cybercrimes over "initiators of ‘electronic' calls for spreading chaos and violating the state's public order." Article 6 of the 2007 Law Against Information Crimes (cybercrimes law) punishes with five years in prison or a fine of three million Saudi Riyals (US$800,000), or both, anyone who "produces something that can violate public order, religious values, or public morals."

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