Saudi death sentence against Sheikh Nimr draws wide condemnation

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A Bahraini women holds up a portrait of prominent Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr during clashes with riot police following a protest in solidarity with Nimr, in the village of Sanabis, west of Manama, on October 15, 2014. (Photo: AFP - Mohammed al-Shaikh)

By: Rana Harbi, Maguy Arnous

Published Thursday, October 16, 2014

Human rights organizations and activists called on Saudi Arabia to overturn the death sentence handed down to prominent Saudi cleric and pro-democracy activist Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, accusing the Saudi regime of curbing freedom of speech and opinion.

Nimr, who has repeatedly criticized the lack of basic freedoms in Saudi Arabia and has called for greater rights for Saudi minorities, including the Shia, was convicted on Wednesday of multiple charges, including “delivering anti-government speeches” and “breaking allegiance with the ruler,” and was sentenced to death by The Specialized Criminal Court, Saudi Arabia's “terrorism tribunal.”

The verdict drew intense criticism from different rights groups and political figures.

A ‘politically motivated’ verdict

The Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHCR) released a statementon Wednesday condemning the decision to impose death penalty against Nimr, saying that the verdict is “politically motivated.”

"The sheikh's arrest came against the backdrop of rising public unrest and dissension in Saudi Arabia as the “Arab Spring” took hold across the Middle East," the IHRC said.

The widely revered cleric 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.

"It is outrageous that a religious personality of the stature of Sheikh al-Nimr can be sentenced to death for nothing other than standing up for justice and the human rights of all Saudi citizens,” London-based IHCR chair Massoud Shadjareh noted.

Similarly, Deputy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program Said Boumedouha said in a report posted online Wednesday that the ruling “is part of a campaign by the authorities in Saudi Arabia to crush all dissent, including those defending the rights of the Kingdom’s Shia Muslim community.”

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 an end to the injustice and discrimination its people suffer at the hands of the Saudi regime.

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 1,042, of whom 280 remain in prison, including 24 children and five adults who were sentenced to death for “using violence against the police.”

On October 15, the sheikh’s brother, Mohammed Nimr, was also arrested, allegedly because he tweeted about Nimr’s death sentence. His whereabouts remain unknown.

“The shocking death sentence against Sheikh al-Nimr followed by the arrest of his brother in court today illustrate the lengths Saudi Arabia will go to in their quest to stop Shia activists from defending their rights. Sheikh al-Nimr must be released and Saudi Arabia must end its systematic discrimination and harassment of the Shia community,” Boumedouha added.

Nimr’s family issued a statement shortly after the ruling was announced in which it described the verdict as a "dangerous precedent for decades to come.”

According to the statement, “the ruling is purely political” and the charges held against Nimr “are false.”

The statement also included a message from Nimr in which he promised to “always commit to say what’s right and report reality as it is” even if it will lead to his “conviction and punishment.”

The family invited “the good-spirited scientists, intellectuals, politicians and writers” to express their objection of the death penalty handed down to Nimr and other rights activists, including minors, warning that it will only lead to “dire consequences.”

Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a report released Thursday, that “Saudi Arabia’s harsh treatment of a prominent Shia cleric is only adding to the existing sectarian discord and unrest,” asserting that “Saudi Arabia’s path to stability in the Eastern Province lies in ending systematic discrimination against Shia citizens, not in death sentences.”

Shias in Saudi Arabia 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 HRW’s Thursday report “Saudi Arabia systematically discriminates against its Shia citizens, who constitute 10 to 15 percent of the population. This discrimination reduces Shias’ access to public education and government employment. They do not receive equal treatment under the justice system, especially with regard to religious freedom. Shia rarely receive permission to build mosques and, unlike their Sunni counterparts, do not receive government funds for religious activities.”

The price of peaceful dissent

According to HRW’s report, Nimr “was convicted on a host of vague charges, based largely on his peaceful criticism of Saudi officials.”

HRW urged the Saudi authorities to abolish The Specialized Criminal Court, the body that convicted Nimr, saying that analysis of four trials of Shia protesters revealed “serious due process concerns” such as “broadly framed charges,” “denial of access to lawyers,” and “quick dismissal of allegations of torture without investigation.”

Likewise, Amnesty described the trial as “deeply flawed” and “appalling.”

According to Amnesty, Nimr “was merely exercising his right for free expression” and that the charges are “vague and insufficient to criminalize his peaceful activities.”

“Sheikh al-Nimr’s trial has been seriously flawed. Eyewitnesses, whose testimonies were the only evidence used against him, were not brought to court to testify. This violates the country’s own laws. The Sheikh was denied the most basic means to prepare for his defense 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,” Boumedouha explained.

Saudi activist and rights advocate Fouad Ibrahim described the capital punishment against Nimr as a “mistake” that the “country cannot afford.”

“If there are wise people in the Saudi regime, the ruling would be reversed immediately,” Ibrahim said, before stressing on the unlikelihood of this scenario as long as “foolish people” in power consider the country as their “personal right.”

The activist then tweeted: “There are a number of fools amongst al-Saud who are accelerating the fall of their autocratic rule. Their declining popularity in the region is an indicator of the imminent collapse.”

Mass solidarity protests

Mass protests started out on the streets of Awamiyeh and Qatif and merged on al-Thawra Street in solidarity with Nimr. The protesters shouted slogans condemning the decision and calling for an intervention to stop “the farce of arbitrary trials against the opposition.” The protesters demanded the release of all political prisoners.

Many photos of the protests were circulated on social media Wednesday night. They showed mass participation of citizens in the region, some of whom covered their faces in fear of prosecution.

According to Lebanese news channel al-Manar, Saudi security forces responded with live bullets to disperse protesters. No casualties were reported.

Protesters carrying photos of Nimr took to the streets of Bahrain Wednesday to express support of the sheikh and his family. The peaceful protests were met with a fierce military crackdown as Bahraini security forces fired live ammunition and toxic gas bombs at the protesters, al-Manar reported.

Bahrain's opposition bloc al-Wefaq announced its support of Nimr and reiterated the need to release him to prevent further escalation of the already tense situation.

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