Shia Muslim dignitaries in predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia denounced on Wednesday the use of violence by authorities in dealing with protests in the mostly Shia east of the country.
A statement signed by 41 people criticized using the "language of arms against peaceful demonstrations" and called for a "serious investigation" into the violence, which has killed seven people since November.
They also called for the "liberation of political prisoners" and a lifting of the ban on the construction of places of worship by Shias, whom they said are marginalized and discriminated against.
On Monday, an interior ministry official characterized as "new terrorism" recent troubles in the eastern province of Qatif, and said the authorities would "confront it the same way they did" with Al-Qaeda.
He said those behind the incidents are a "minority that is being manipulated from abroad."
The immediate trigger for the protest movement among Saudi Shias was a Saudi-led military intervention in neighboring Bahrain to help its Sunni rulers crush Shiite-led pro-democracy demonstrations last March.
Activists say Saudi authorities have arrested nearly 500 people since the protests started. Many have been released but dozens remain in custody, among them human rights activist Fadel al-Munasif and writer Nazir al-Majid.
In January, Saudi authorities published a list of 23 men wanted on suspicion of involvement in the disturbances.
Later the same month, the interior ministry announced that security forces had arrested nine people suspected of involvement in the wounding of three policemen in Eastern Province.
Most of Saudi Arabia's estimated two million Shias live in the province, where the vast majority of the OPEC kingpin's huge oil reserves lie. They complain of marginalization in the Sunni-dominated kingdom.
Wednesday's statement blamed the unrest on the "sense of desperation among the youth" and warned that the situation could "get out of control."
Last week, Saudi police said they exchanged fire with "masked gunmen" at a protest in the east, killing one of them, in the second fatal clash in two days.
Activists contacted by AFP from Dubai said that Zuhair al-Said, 21, was killed as security forces dispersed a protest on Friday against the death of another Shiite demonstrator the previous day.
Prominent Shiite cleric Sheikh Hasan al-Saffar criticized the use of force against protesters saying: "This will not solve the problem but will only further complicate it," in a speech published on a Shiite websites.