On Thursday night hundreds of people took to the streets of Qatif, in eastern Saudi Arabia, to mark the deaths of at least 14 people in connection with protests against the government over the past year. They denounced the authorities’ failure to investigate these deaths, as well as its continuing crackdown on activists belonging to the Shiite Muslim minority.
Thursday’s protest marked the anniversary of the first protester death in November 2011. Demonstrators carried fake coffins to represent the dead. Authorities did not interfere with the peaceful march. Several eyewitnesses reported that a few hours after the protest ended, security forces shot at houses and into the air in a different part of the city. It was unclear whether these events were linked.
Since March 2011, residents of Qatif, which is a majority Shiite city, have held frequent anti-government protests. Nationwide, Shiites represent just 10 percent of the total population, and are mainly concentrated in the country’s oil-rich east. They are considered heretics by the country’s Sunni leaders, and are marginalised at every level: religious, economic, and political.
Reports vary widely as to the circumstances of the deaths of those killed in connection with anti-government protests. Eyewitnesses have said these people have done nothing but take part in demonstrations. The authorities, meanwhile, have said that they were killed because they attacked security forces, and that on one such occasion, two members of the security forces died.
A portion of the march. Most protesters covered their faces to conceal their identities, fearing reprisals by the authorities.
"During the past year, the situation for Shiites has gotten worse"
Mohammad Alsaeedi lives in Qatif. He has closely followed the protests in his city.
When the protests first started over a year and a half ago, only about 150 or 200 people would dare participate in them. They weren’t calling for the overthrow of the government, just an end to discrimination against Shiites. They wanted the authorities to release ‘forgotten prisoners’ – political prisoners held for years without trial. I remember telling my friends, ‘if the security forces start to arrest or kill people, many more will no doubt come out and support them.’ And that’s what happened.After a few months, they started arresting people, and the number of protesters increased. After the first person was killed, their numbers went from the hundreds to the thousands. And as more people died, the protests kept growing. It was no longer anymore just about the ‘forgotten prisoners’ or reforms; they started asking for justice for the dead and for the ruling family’s removal from power.The protesters also lost faith in their Shiite leaders, who tried to calm them by telling them that they were in dialogue with the government, and that it was best not to demonstrate so that these talks wouldn’t fall through. But seeing that their situation hasn’t improved, most Shiites don’t listen to them at all anymore. The protesters are mostly young, and don’t need leaders to rally around; they organise themselves using technology, mainly through Facebook pages.During the past year, the situation for Shiites has gotten worse, not just in Qatif but all over. The authorities have cracked down, arresting more and more activists. The people are angrier than ever, and will not forget the dead. It just seems so unfair that our region has all the oil, but that we do not profit from this money. It’s hard to find work, and if you’re Shiite, you can forget about getting a government job with any responsibility. The best you can do is join the traffic police, not the regular police. And Shiite youth are harassed by the police non-stop. If nothing changes, I don’t foresee this protest movement dying down anytime soon; on the contrary, it seems that it will only grow.”
Protesters carried fake coffins to represent the dead. Photo posted by activists on Facebook.
The women chant: "Punish those that shot them!"