Oct 15, 2014 10:29 AM

Saudi sentences iconic Shiite cleric to death

The Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) A well-known Shiite cleric was sentenced to death Wednesday by a court in Saudi Arabia, sparking fears of renewed unrest from his supporters in the kingdom and neighboring Bahrain.

Sheik Nimr al-Nimr's case has been watched closely by minority Saudi Shiites in the eastern region of the majority Sunni kingdom. The 54-year-old cleric's case was seen as a barometer for Saudi Arabia's handling of Shiite grievances over the past years and a clear message of zero-tolerance to other Shiite activists.

Al-Nimr had faced charges that include disobeying the ruler, firing on security forces, sowing discord, undermining national unity and interfering in the affairs of a sisterly nation. A statement by the cleric's family described the verdict as discretionary, saying the judge had the option of ordering a lighter sentence.

The family said the verdict sets a "dangerous precedent for decades to come."

Prosecutors asked for execution followed by crucifixion. In Saudi Arabia, most death sentences are carried out by beheading. Crucifixion in this context means the body and head would then be put on public display.

Two brothers of the convicted cleric were also apparently detained in the wake of the verdict, according to family members and activists. Mohammed al-Nimr, had told The Associated Press earlier Wednesday that he would be in the courtroom for the verdict and he announced his brother's conviction on Twitter. Another brother, Montathir al-Nimr, later wrote on Twitter that Mohammed was arrested after the verdict at the courthouse. Activists who spoke to Montathir said that when eldest brother Jaafar al-Nimr went to ask about Mohammed, he too was detained in Riyadh.

Al-Nimr had not denied the political charges against him, but denied ever carrying weapons or calling for violence. He can appeal the sentence.

Public figure and renowned activist Jaafar al-Shayeb in eastern Saudi Arabia said the verdict appears to have been handed down for "sedition" and "incitement" of Shiite protests in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

"There's a big chance there will be a reaction," al-Shayeb said. "There could be protests, marches, statements of condemnation. ... The situation is tense."

Bahraini authorities on Wednesday painted over pictures of al-Nimr that had been plastered on walls by Shiite supporters there. Dozens of protesters took to the streets on the eve of the verdict, carrying al-Nimr's photo before clashing with police in a restive area southeast of Bahrain's capital Manama.

Al-Nimr was a key leader of Shiite protests demanding equal rights in 2011. Protests are banned in Saudi Arabia, where many ultraconservatives view Shiites as heretics.

He also openly criticized the Sunni government of Bahrain's handling of Shiite protests there. Saudi Arabia sent troops to help Bahrain's Sunni monarchy quell its Shiite uprising in the tiny island nation.

Al-Nimr was arrested in July 2012 when he was shot by security forces in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. Four security officers said he had weapons and fired on them first, prosecutors said.

Defense lawyers did not cross-examine security forces because they were not at the hearing they testified in. The lawyers said they were not told of the hearing.

According to Human Rights Watch, more than 1,040 people were detained in Shiite protests between February 2011 and August 2014. There are at least 280 still imprisoned.

"I think the message that Saudis are saying is: 'We will arrest anybody. We don't care how high profile they are. ... nobody is above this. We don't have any tolerance. We don't have any flexibility,'" Human Rights Watch Middle East researcher Adam Coogle said.

Coogle said fears about Iran, the Middle East's dominant Shiite power, also played into the trial. He said that Saudi authorities view what happened in Bahrain and the Eastern Province of the kingdom as "meddling" by Iran.

"Talking up the Iranian threat is also an excuse to perpetuate systematic discrimination against Shiite citizens," he said.


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