Saudi Arabia: Outrageous sentence against Shi’a cleric shows disturbing pattern of harassment

The outrageous eight year prison sentence against a Shi’a cleric in Saudi Arabia for criticizing its leaders is the latest example of a disturbing pattern of harassment and discrimination against the country’s Shi’a community, said Amnesty International.

Sheikh Tawfiq al-`Amr, a Shi’a cleric in the al-Ahsa governorate, was sentenced to eight years in prison, followed by a 10-year travel ban, and barred from delivering religious sermons.

He was yesterday convicted by the Specialized Criminal Court on charges of defaming Saudi Arabia’s ruling system, ridiculing the mentality of its religious leaders, inciting sectarianism, calling for change and disobeying the ruler. The charges are in connection to a number of public speeches he has delivered since 2011.

“Sheikh Tawfiq al-`Amr is the latest Shi’a cleric to pay a very high price for refusing to be silenced,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.

“Daring to peacefully criticize Saudi Arabia’s rulers is no reason to end up behind bars. He must be released immediately in connection with these charges.”

Sheikh Tawfiq al-`Amr was originally arrested in August 2011. He was due to be released in December 2012 but was instead sentenced to three years in prison when he refused to sign a pledge to stop delivering religious sermons.

This sentence was appealed by both Sheikh Tawfiq al-`Amr’s lawyers and the prosecution. The appeal judge reportedly asked for the sentence to be increased on two separate subsequent occasions. When the judge in charge of the case refused to do so, he was replaced by the one who handed down yesterday’s conviction.

“The conviction of Sheikh Tawfiq al-`Amr by a special security and counterterrorism court reveals the extent to which the Saudi Arabian judicial system is arbitrary and unfair. Had the cleric signed a pledge not to deliver religious sermons, he would have currently been a free man. Yet the authorities seemed concerned about one thing alone which is how to punish him harsher for not obeying them,” said Said Boumedoua.

Scores of Shi’a activists have been arrested, imprisoned and harassed across Saudi Arabia since 2011, mainly for calling for political reforms.

Many have been charged solely for participating in peaceful demonstrations and received harsh prison sentences ranging from eight to 25 years.

Between May and June 2014 at least five Shi’a were sentenced to death on trumped up charges related to their political activism. One of them was 17 years old at the time of the alleged offence.