By Souhail Karam
Saudi Arabia on Monday freed 17 political inmates from the Ismaili community who had been jailed since 2000, sources said, in a new sign of easing tensions with the minority group based near the Yemen border.
King Abdullah ordered the release of the predominantly young Shi'ite Ismailis about six months before the end of their 10-year jail sentence as part of a broader royal pardon for hundreds of inmates in the kingdom to mark the start of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, the sources said.
"The 17 Ismailis were released this afternoon," a source at the governorate of the southern Najran province told Reuters. "The order to release ... (them) came on Sunday," he said.
An Interior Ministry spokesman said any comment should come from the royal court. Reuters was unable to contact the court.
Mohammad al-Askar, a leading Ismaili activist, said the move put an end to "one of the most sensitive issues" that had been irritating the minority group.
"One of the 17 inmates called me early this morning to say that he and the other 16 were asked by prison authorities to sign a pledge not to participate again in protests and unrest before they get released," Askar said.
The 17 male prisoners had initially been sentenced to death by public beheading in 2001 under the reign of King Fahd before the de facto ruler King Abdullah -- who was then crown prince -- commuted in 2002 the sentences to 10 years in prison.
The prisoners were arrested after a meeting in 2000 with the then governor of Najran province, a royal disliked by Saudi Ismailis, to ask for the release of an Ismaili teacher, ended in clashes that left two civilians injured.
"This is the news of the year (for Ismailis) ... It shows how the government mentality has begun to change under the new (Najran) governor," said Askar.
King Abdullah appointed one of his sons, Prince Mishaal, as governor of Najran last year after Ismaili Shi'ites complained that efforts to settle Sunnis of Yemeni origin and give them housing and jobs were an effort to marginalize Ismailis further.
Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia said it would give land to Najran's inhabitants in a move diplomats say was intended to improve security and combat crime.
Ismaili Shi'ites, a majority in the Najran area but a minority in mainly Sunni Saudi Arabia, have long complained of discrimination and poor living standards.
Saudi authorities are keen to improve security along the border with Yemen, which is fighting a rebellion by Shi'ites there and is also a possible staging post for attacks against them by al Qaeda.
In April, the Saudi Interior Ministry said it had arrested 11 al Qaeda-linked militants in mountains close to Yemen, accusing them of planning attacks.
Saudi Arabia and Yemen share a long mountainous border porous enough to be used for all sorts of trafficking, from illegal Muslim pilgrims to drugs and weapons.