A Saudi court sentenced prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr to death Wednesday, sparking fears of renewed unrest from his supporters in Saudi Arabia’s troubled east and neighboring Bahrain.
The kingdom’s minority Shia community — who have often complained of mistreatment by the Sunni royal family and even launched an Arab Spring-inspired protest in 2011 for greater rights — has followed Nimr’s case closely.
The 54-year-old cleric, an outspoken critic of the Saudi government and advocate for Shia rights, was arrested in July 2012 after being shot by government security officers. He was charged with firing on security forces, disobeying the royal family, sowing discord, undermining national unity and interfering in the affairs of a sisterly nation — assumed to be Bahrain, given the cleric’s public criticism of the Sunni government’s treatment of Shia protesters there — Adam Coogle, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) Middle East researcher, told Al Jazeera.
While Nimr has admitted to the political charges levied against him, he has denied firing on security forces or sowing discord by calling for violence. His defense lawyers were not permitted to cross-examine security officers who accused him of such crimes.
Prosecutors sought and received a punishment of execution followed by crucifixion as punishment for Nimr’s alleged offenses. In Saudi Arabia, most death sentences are carried out by beheading. Crucifixion in this context means the body and head would be put on public display to serve as a warning to others. The penalty is reserved for the most serious of crimes, Coogle said.
Mohammed al-Nimr, the cleric’s brother, announced the verdict on Twitter. He was detained shortly after making the announcement, presumably to prevent him from speaking to the media.
“We won’t really know the details surrounding the verdict until we obtain more information, but with the arrest of his brother — our main source of info — that may take a while,” Coogle said.
Renowned Saudi activist Jaafar al-Shayeb said the verdict appears to have been handed down for “incitement” of Shia protests in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain — and more may follow.
“There’s a big chance there will be a reaction,” Shayeb said. “There could be protests, marches, statements of condemnation. … The situation is tense.”