RIYADH // Saudi police have arrested 176 people, including 15 women, for holding an illegal protest to demand the release of Islamist prisoners.
The state SPA news agency, quoting a police spokesman, reported protesters were arrested "after refusing to break up a gathering outside the offices of the investigation bureau and the prosecution in Buraida," in central Saudi Arabia late on Friday.
The spokesman accused the protesters of acting on behalf of "deviant groups", a term authorities usually use to refer to Al Qaeda.
Small groups of women have gathered almost daily in Buraida, north of Riyadh, to demand the release of jailed Islamist relatives, and dozens of protesters held a rare sit-in outside the Buraida prison in September.
At the time police dispersed the protesters and authorities later warned they would deal "firmly" with demonstrations, sparking condemnation from Amnesty International which urged Riyadh to withdraw its threat.
On Friday the London-based human rights watchdog criticised the latest arrests.
"This cat-and-mouse game authorities in Saudi Arabia are playing is, simply, outrageous," said Philip Luther, Amnesty's director for the Middle East and North Africa.
"Instead of persecuting peaceful protesters, what the Saudi authorities should do is listen to their demands and release all those held solely for exercising their human rights."
Amnesty said Friday's protesters were seeking the release of "more than 50 women and children" detained after a similar demonstration two days earlier.
The women and children "were demanding the release of their relatives, incarcerated without charge or trial or beyond the end of their sentences", said the watchdog.
Some of the women also called for the sacking of the interior minister of the country where "criticism of the state is not tolerated," it added.
A wave of deadly Al-Qaeda attacks in the kingdom between 2003 and 2006 prompted a Saudi crackdown that drove out the local branch of the group.