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Activists: Saudi women arrested at detention protests

Saudi women protest

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Story highlights

  • Activists report arrests of women in Saudi cities
  • Protesters unhappy with pace of judicial system
  • Saudi officials have been reluctant to comment

Dozens of women and at least five children were arrested on Saturday after demonstrations were held in two Saudi cities, Riyadh and Buraida, according to human rights activists. The women were demanding the release of relatives they say have been held for years without access to lawyers or a trial, the activists said.

Mohammed Al-Qahtani, a prominent activist currently on trial in Saudi Arabia on charges that include breaking allegiance to the Saudi king, told CNN the women who were protesting are "female relatives of political prisoners."

"They are asking the authorities to either take these prisoners to court," said Al-Qahtani, "or set them free."

In the capital city of Riyadh, one activist who was part of the demonstration said it was held outside a building that houses one of the country's government-backed human rights groups.

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The activist, who requested anonymity for fear for her safety, said she had to quickly flee the scene to avoid arrest. About 50 women demonstrated there, and at least two of them had been arrested as police tried to disperse the crowd, she said.

"They went out there today to ask that their relatives be freed," said the activist. "They have been in prison for a long time and have had no lawyer and no trial."

According to two other activists, three of the women arrested in Riyadh were the wife and daughter and granddaughter of Suleiman al-Rashudi, a political activist who was arrested in December after giving a lecture in which he said protests were permitted in Islam.

Al-Rashudi previously spent five years in detention and was found guilty last year of, among other things, financing terrorism, incitement against the king and attempting to seize power.

One amateur video purportedly shot at the scene shows women, some who brought their children, chanting, "The people call for the liberation of the prisons."

In Buraida, the provincial capital of deeply conservative Qassim Province, activists say at least 26 women protested and were arrested outside the city's Board of Grievances on Saturday -- the scene of a similar protest in early January.

Many of the women brought their children, who they say were also arrested.

One of the female protesters, Um Abdullah, spoke to CNN by phone as she was being held in a police station in Buraida.

"I demonstrated for the release of my husband, Abdulmalek Al-Muqdin," explained Um Abdullah, "who has been in jail without charge for 12 years."

According to Um Abdullah, whose son was detained alongside her, the police told her and the other women that they would be released if they signed a piece of paper that would compel them to show up at any government office if summoned to do so, but the women refused to do so.

One amateur video posted online purports to show several of the women, and some of the children, in the back of a police bus after having been detained. In the video, the women express solidarity with the political prisoners in Saudi Arabia.

Despite repeated efforts, CNN has been unable to reach Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry for comment. Protests are prohibited in Saudi Arabia.

In early January, a small group of women held a demonstration in the same part of Buraida, calling for the release of detained family members. Their arrest, a short time later, caused great outrage and sparked several days of small protests in various cities.

Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry confirmed to CNN later in the month that the women were eventually all released.

When asked in late January about demonstrators' claims that their relatives are political prisoners who should be released, Interior Ministry Spokesman Major Gen. Mansour Al-Turki told CNN that Saudi government officials would not comment on cases currently being "looked at by the courts.

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