QATIF, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Saudi Shi'ites staged protests in Saudi Arabia's oil-producing Eastern Province on Thursday, demanding the release of prisoners they say are being held without trial, witnesses said.
Demonstrations of about 100 people were seen in the small Gulf coast town of Awwamiya, as well as in the nearby Shi'ite center of Qatif, demanding the release of prisoners who the protesters say were arrested for security reasons, some as long as 16 years.
"We want the prisoners free but we also have other demands," said Radi al-Suwaileh, who was in the Qatif march. "We want equality."
Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite minority mostly live in the east, which holds much of the oil wealth of the world's top crude exporter and is near Bahrain, scene of protests by majority Shi'ites against their Sunni rulers.
"Peaceful, peaceful," demonstrators in Awwamiya shouted, holding up pictures of Shi'ites they say have been long held without trial, while policemen stood nearby without interfering. A group of women also followed the protest.
Last month, Saudi authorities released three prisoners after a previous protest by Shi'ites in Awwamiya.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy without an elected parliament and usually does not tolerate public dissent.
The kingdom applies an austere Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam and Shi'ites say that, while their situation has improved under reforms launched by King Abdullah, they still face restrictions in getting senior government jobs.
The government denies these charges.
Last week, King Abdullah returned to Riyadh after a three-month medical absence and unveiled $37 billion in benefits to help lower- and middle-income people among the 18 million Saudi nationals. It includes pay rises to offset inflation, unemployment benefits and affordable family housing.
The demonstrations in and near Qatif were much smaller than protests staged in 2009 after police launched a search for firebrand Shi'ite preacher Nimr al-Nimr, who had suggested in a sermon that Shi'ites could one day seek a separate state.
The secessionist threat, which analysts say was unprecedented since the 1979 Iranian revolution, provoked anti-government protests, and was followed by clashes between the Sunni religious police and Shi'ite pilgrims near the tomb of Prophet Mohammad in the holy city of Medina.
Since then, Shi'ites say the situation has calmed down but they are still waiting for promised reforms to be carried out.
(Reporting by Ulf Laessing, editing by Michael Roddy)