More than 20 Omanis have been on a prison hunger strike since mid-December, a local rights group said Sunday, in protest at what they say are unfair sentences for taking part in demonstrations last year.

Protests demanding jobs and an end to corruption hit the Arabian kingdom between January and May last year when Omanis, inspired by successful uprisings against veteran Arab leaders, took to the streets demanding political and economic reform.

At least five people died in clashes with police, according to medics, and scores were arrested, however the scale of the protests and scope of their aims was much lower than elsewhere.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), set up by Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said in 2008, said it gained access to the jailed protesters after activists posted news of the hunger strike on social networking websites.

The prisoners complained about the sentences and demanded to be released, a statement from the Muscat-based NHRC said. While some conceded their guilt, others said they were not happy with the sentences handed out, it added.

They were sentenced to between six months and five years on charges of possessing explosives, blocking roads, and forcing government employees out of their offices, said an activist who was held with the prisoners before being released in May.

The activist, who declined to be named, said the 22 men filed an appeal in July but received no response.

The men are being force fed in a prison hospital in Samail, west of the capital.

Sultan Qaboos, a U.S. ally who has ruled the Gulf Arab country for 41 years, has promised economic and political reforms, raised state-sector salaries, initiated unemployment benefits and created thousands of jobs to ease discontent.

Elections for the Shura council, which has limited legislative powers, were held in October, but the body is largely consultative and political parties remain banned.

Last month authorities demolished a roundabout in the northern industrial town of Sohar, which became a hub for protests last February. That echoed events in nearby Bahrain, where the government tore down a monument that was the center of pro-democracy demonstrations there.

(Reporting By Saleh al-Shaibany and Nour Merza; editing by Sami Aboudi and Ben Harding)