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Saudi sentences iconic Shia cleric to death

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DUBAI: A well-known Shia 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 Shia grievances over the past years.

His brother, Mohammed al-Nimr, announced the verdict on Twitter. He had told The Associated Press earlier Wednesday that he would be in the courtroom for the verdict. He could not be immediately reached again for comment.

The cleric had faced charges that also 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, suggesting that what the court found al-Nimr guilty of could have been eligible for 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 display as a warning to others.

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 Shia 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 Shia supporters there.

Al-Nimr was a key leader of Shia 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 Shia protests there. Saudi Arabia sent troops to help Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy quell its Shia 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 Shia 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 Shia 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 Shia citizens,” he said.

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