JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - A court in Riyadh has sentenced prominent Saudi rights campaigner Mohamad al-Bajadi to four years in prison, activists said on Tuesday.
Bajadi was detained in March 2011 after voicing support for families demonstrating outside the Interior Ministry in Riyadh to demand the release of jailed relatives, according to fellow activists. They say he has been on hunger strike for a month.
"Last Tuesday, after the news of the hunger strike came out, they took him to the Specialised Criminal Court in Riyadh and he objected to the legitimacy of the court ... and despite that the judge sentenced him," activist Fowzan al-Harby told Reuters.
Bajadi has sent a handwritten letter to fellow activist Mohammad al-Qahtani saying his charges included forming a human rights association, tarnishing Saudi Arabia's reputation in the media, questioning the independence of the judiciary, encouraging political detainees' relatives to demonstrate, and owning illegal books.
A Justice Ministry spokesman said he could not immediately comment on the case. Last week an Interior Ministry spokesman denied that Bajadi was on hunger strike, saying that he was "in good health, consuming food on a regular basis".
Bajadi's condition could not be independently verified.
The Specialised Criminal Court handles security cases, including the trials of Islamist militants accused of carrying out bombings and shootings in the kingdom.
Bajadi and other activists say the court holds trials in secret and deprives defendants of their legal rights, such as access to legal representation.
They also say it is run by the Interior Ministry, which controls the Saudi police and security forces. The Justice Ministry spokesman said the court falls under his ministry.
The human rights group Amnesty International said on Monday that Bajadi was "a prisoner of conscience held solely for the peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly", and called for his immediate release.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that has no elected parliament and little tolerance for public dissent. After announcing a generous spending package early last year, it avoided the kind of unrest that swept across other Arab countries.
Two independent Saudi rights groups said last year that large numbers of people, including some political prisoners, were being held in detention centers run by the state security apparatus.
The Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association said 30,000 people were being held in such prisons, while the Human Rights First Society put the number at 12,000-15,000.
The Interior Ministry said last year it was holding 5,696 people for "militant"-related cases, most of whom had already appeared before courts. It says there are no political prisoners in Saudi Arabia.
(Reporting by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Kevin Liffey)