July 8, 2012 / 6:52 PM / 8 years ago

Saudi police arrest prominent Shi'ite Muslim cleric: brother

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - A prominent Shi’ite Muslim cleric who was wanted by the police was detained in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province on Sunday over calls for more rights for the minority Muslim sect in the Sunni monarchy, his brother and an activist said.

Early reports of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr’s arrest, which spread online on Sunday, prompted demonstrations in the village of Awamiya where Shi’ites have clashed with security forces several times since early last year, said Tawfiq al-Seif, a Shi’ite community leader.

Activists from the Eastern Province, where most of Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ites live, posted pictures on the Internet of the grey-bearded Sheikh Nimr in a vehicle covered with what appeared to be a blood-stained white blanket.

An Interior Ministry spokesman could not be reached for comment after several attempts by Reuters.

Sheikh Nimr’s brother said the cleric was detained by police while driving from a farm to his house in al-Qatif.

“They (police) took him from his car and blood can be seen near his car,” said his brother Mohammed al-Nimr.

“He had been wanted by the interior ministry for a couple of months because of his political views. In the past couple of months he has adopted a lot of Shi’ite issues and expressed his views on them, demanding their rights,” Nimr’s brother added.

Sheikh Nimr was previously detained for several days in 2004 and 2006, his brother said.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter and a key U.S. ally, has largely escaped the kind of protests that toppled four Arab heads of state since last year. But Shi’ites complain of discrimination.

Small and sporadic protests have taken place in the Eastern Province, where the oil sector is concentrated and where some one million Shi’ite Muslims live.

In January, the kingdom ordered the arrest of 23 Shi’ites in Eastern Province it accused of being responsible for unrest that had led to shootings and protests in recent weeks. (Reporting by Asma Al Sharif; Additional reporting by Angus McDowall; editing by Sami Aboudi and Ralph Boulton)

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