SHAFAQNA – A Saudi judge on Wednesday sentenced to death an outspoken Shia cleric who has called for greater rights for Saudi minorities, the cleric’s brother Mohamed al-Nimr, said on his Twitter account.
Mohamed al-Nimr did not give details of the sentence against Sheikh Nimr in his Tweet, but said that the judge had rejected a verdict of hadd al-haraba, or rebellion, which carries the additional penalty of publicly displaying the body.
Sheikh Nimr was detained in July 2012 after backing mass pro-democracy protests that erupted in February 2011 in the Qatif district of eastern Saudi Arabia, which is home to many of the country’s marginalized Shia minority. His capture, during which he was wounded by police fire, prompted several days of protests in which three unarmed protesters were killed by Saudi forces.
Last year a prosecutor said he was seeking to convict Sheikh Nimr for “aiding terrorists” and “waging war on God,” which carry the death penalty.
However, Sheikh Nimr has not once called for violence against the Saudi regime.
In August, a Saudi prosecutor-general read a text from a sermon delivered by the Sheikh ostensibly condemning him of inciting violence, when the text clearly shows Sheikh Nimr, who was previously imprisoned five times between 2003 and 2008, calling for preserving the peaceful nature of the protest movement.
The text reads, “I recommend for young people not to be dragged into confronting swords with swords with a regime that wants to lure people to violence to justify the repression of the protests. We are stronger with our words. We are willing to die. Our movement is not peaceful in the sense of submission. We are peaceable with those who choose peace, but keep your hands off. Martyrdom is the strongest weapon that can defeat the strongest regime.”
The Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia was one of the regions that had joined the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, to demand its political rights, and end the injustice and discrimination its people suffer at the hands of the sectarian and oppressive Saudi regime.
The protests started when activist in the province demanded the release of nine prisoners, known as “the forgotten prisoners,” who had been at the time detained for 16 years.
The Saudi regime responded to the peaceful protests by terrorizing the people of Qatif and Awamiyah, killing more than 20 people and wounding at least 58 others between 2011 and August 2012. The number of people detained in Saudi prisons exceeded 1042, of whom 280 remain in prison, including 24 children and 5 who were sentenced to death for “using violence against the police.
According to a 2013 Human Rights Watchreport titled Challenging the Red Lines: Stories of Rights Activists in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi government responded to the pro-democracy protests with a crackdown on the activists to suppress the calls for change and halt the work and growth of the opposition.
“(The death sentence) will shock everyone here and it will reduce very much the credibility of the state among Shias. I think the government is giving a show of strength against anyone who thinks of opposition,” said Tawfiq al-Seif, a community leader in Qatif.
Earlier this year two other men involved in the protests were sentenced to death, including Ali al-Nimr, the son of Mohammed al-Nimr, who was a minor at the time of the demonstrations.
People in Qatif remain hopeful that the death sentences passed against Nimr and the other men will not be carried out, Seif said. “Probably they want to show people the sword but not actually use it,” he said.
Shias say they face discrimination in seeking education or government employment and that they are spoken of disparagingly in textbooks and by some Sunni-extremist officials and state-funded clerics.
They also complain of restrictions on setting up places of worship and marking Shia holidays, and say that Qatif and al-Ahsa, another region with a large Shia population, receive less state funding than other communities of equivalent size.
The Saudi government denies charges of discrimination but according to a 2009 Human Rights Watch report, Shia citizens in Saudi Arabia “face systematic discrimination in religion, education, justice, and employment.”