Saudi Arabia came under renewd pressure on Wedbesday 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 unauthorized demonstrations, U.S.-based lobby group Human Rights Watch added its voice to demands for a relaxation of the protest ban, AFP reported.
“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 authorized 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 Shias 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 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 FM warns against protests
Dialogue is the best way to resolve any problems in Saudi Arabia, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal said on Wednesday, adding any foreign interference will not be tolerated, Reuters reported.
“The best way to achieve what citizens want is through dialogue whether in the eastern region, or the western, southern and northern regions,” the minister told a news conference.
“The principle of dialogue, I believe, is the best way to address the issues facing society,” he said, warning foreign states not to interfere in Saudi affairs.
“Change will come through the citizens of this kingdom and not through foreign fingers, we don't need them,' he said. “We will cut any finger that crosses into the kingdom.”
“The called-for reform does not come via protests and (the clerics) have forbidden protests since they violate the Koran and the way of the Prophet,” Prince Saud said.
Protests in neighboring Bahrain are being closely watched in Saudi Arabia.
U.S. State Department spokesman P J Crowley said this week that Saudis had the right to protest peacefully. Asked about this, Prince Saud said: 'The kingdom absolutely rejects any foreign interference in its internal affairs in any shape or form.'
He added that the motives driving unrest buffeting numerous Arab nations were not necessarily the same. “Every country is different from the other. I can't link them and say this is a rampant phenomenon,” he said.
Prince Saud, who is the nephew of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, said it was up to regional grouping the Arab League to decide what to do to bring calm to Libya, where there is a violent uprising against its leader, Muammar Gaddafi.
“The options to reach this goal, which is protecting the Libyans and stopping bloodshed, are up to the Arab League,” he said. Arab foreign ministers are due to meet on Saturday in Cairo to discuss the Libyan crisis.
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.