Raising fears of renewed sectarian tensions in the region, Saudi Arabia’s top court has sentenced a charismatic opposition leader to death for speaking out against the kingdom’s ruling family.
Nimr Baqer al-Nimr, a reformist cleric, has repeatedly called for an end to corruption and discrimination against minorities. He has a wide following, particularly among young people in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, home to most of the country’s minority Shiites, who are considered heretics by the Sunni-ruled government.
After being imprisoned for nearly two years, al-Nimr appeared in Riyadh’s Specialized Criminal Court Wednesday with his lawyer and two brothers. Charged with terrorism offences and “breaking allegiance to the king,” the judge upheld the country’s harshest sentence — “crucifixion” — where the decapitated body is publicly displayed. His brothers were reportedly detained after the sentencing.
Al-Nimr’s family urged Saudi authorities to reconsider the sentence, given the cleric’s teachings to never use force against the government. “They use violent bullets, we will use the roar of the word,” al-Nimr said in a sermon in 2011.
In another sermon that year, al-Nimr stated: “It is not permitted to use weapons and spread corruption in society.”
Al-Nimr was arrested in July 2012 following a gun battle in which he was shot in the leg four times for allegedly resisting arrest. His relatives deny police claims of rioting, saying the protests were peaceful and that al-Nimr never resisted arrest or owned a gun.
The confrontation took place after a fiery speech al-Nimr delivered earlier that month following Arab Spring-inspired protests across the region. “What gives the House of Saud the power to inherit the throne?” he said. “The House of Saud and Khalifa (in Bahrain) are mere collaborators with and pawns of the British and their cohorts. It is our right, and the right of the Bahraini people, and all people everywhere, to choose our leaders and demand that rule by succession be done away with as it contradicts our religion.”
Al-Nimr was held for eight months before being charged and his trial was delayed twice to allow the prosecution to gather more evidence.
Amnesty International described the trial as “seriously flawed.”
“Eyewitnesses, whose testimonies were the only evidence used against him, were not brought to court to testify,” said Said Boumedouha, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa program. “The sheikh was denied the most basic means to prepare for his defence and was not represented by legal counsel for some of the proceedings because the authorities did not inform his lawyer of some dates of the hearings.”
Toby Matthieson, a researcher at Cambridge University and author of The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism, told The Star the sentence has the ability to heighten Sunni-Shiite tensions in the region.
“The Saudis have a long history with Sheikh Nimr,” he added, noting an amnesty agreement in 1993 between the Saudi government and Shiite opposition that al-Nimr rejected. “They want to get rid of the one guy who has become a symbol of the (opposition) movement. But they may not execute him. If they did, he would be the first political prisoner to be executed in Saudi Arabia in decades. They like to use these people as bargaining chips.”
Al-Nimr’s detention and trial sparked warnings from Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiite clergy in Iran and the militant group Hezbollah. Activists in the U.K., Europe and Australia also held public demonstrations calling for his release.
Prominent religious leader Sayed Mahdi Modarresi blasted Saudi Arabia in a fiery blog post earlier this month, calling it “a country that belongs to the Stone Age rather than the 21st century” and attributing its extremist laws to the militant Salafi interpretation it adopts — and shares with the Islamic State group.
“Saudi Arabia is a country which has no constitution and no elections,” he wrote in the Huffington Post U.K. “Laws are enacted by royal decrees and ratified by a toothless parliament whose members are installed by the monarch. If this is how the Sunni citizens are treated, you can only imagine what the (Shiite) face on a daily basis. ”
People took to Twitter on Wednesday to condemn the sentence. In the U.K., 18-year-old Ali Reza Versi tweeted, “If the Saudis have the audacity and stupidity to execute #SheikhNimr, it would open the floodgates to a powerful revolt.” London-based artist Zainab Tejani said: “The man who tried to create peace has been sentenced to death by the Saudi regime. The world must awaken.”