Saudi Arabia: Critic calls for inquiry into Shia arrests

Riyadh, 25 Feb. (AKI) - A prominent Saudi intellectual has asked the government to hold an inquiry into the behaviour of religious police after nine Shia pilgrims were arrested during clashes in the holy city of Medina. Tawfiq al-Sayf called for probe because he believed the pilgrims' arrests occurred for no reason.

Saudi authorities reportedly arrested at least nine Shia pilgrims after three days of violent clashes in the holy city. The first protest occurred on Friday and the last protest took place on Tuesday.

Jaafar al-Shaib, a leading figure among minority Saudi Shias, said the clashes occurred between Shia pilgrims and religious police near a mosque that houses the tomb of Prophet Mohammed.

"Some 1,500 Shia pilgrims gathered near the mosque for the commemoration of Prophet Mohammed's death," Jaafar told the media.

"We came here to celebrate the birth of Mohammed and the religious police charged at us. While we were in front of the mosque, plainclothes police charged at us with batons to disperse us."

Religious police often prevent pilgrims venerating tombs, seen as idolatry under the strict Saudi version of Islam.

According to Arab daily, al-Quds al-Arabi, there were as many as 1,500 pilgrims outside the mosque where they held a demonstration, shouting slogans against the government and accusing authorities of discrimination.

Some pilgrims were injured in a stampede after police fired into the air to disperse the crowd, Jaafar said.

He also said some shops owned by Shias were attacked.

An interior ministry spokesman for security affairs described the incident as "a quarrel between visitors and worshippers".

Relations are tense between Saudi Arabia's majority Sunnis and the Shia, who are a minority of the country's 22 million people.

The Shia are regarded as infidels under the fundamentalist Wahabi interpretation of Islam followed in Saudi Arabia and often complain of discrimination.

Many Shia critics have been jailed, and others claim to have been banned from jobs in the religious police and teaching religion.


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