Saudi Arabia: Appalling death sentence against Shi’a cleric must be quashed

A death sentence passed today against a dissident Shi’a Muslim cleric in Saudi Arabia for “disobeying the ruler”, “inciting sectarian strife” and “encouraging, leading and participating in demonstrations” after a deeply flawed trial is appalling and must be immediately quashed, said Amnesty International.

“The death sentence against Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr is part of a campaign by the authorities in Saudi Arabia to crush all dissent, including those defending the rights of the Kingdom’s Shi’a Muslim community,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.

Sheikh al-Nimr’s brother, Mohammad al-Nimr, was reportedly arrested after the sentence was passed at the Specialised Criminal Court in Riyadh.

The reasons for Mohammad al-Nimr’s arrest and his whereabouts remain unknown – although it is believed he was detained after tweeting about his brother’s death sentence.

“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 Shi’a activists from defending their rights. Sheikh al-Nimr must be released and Saudi Arabia must end its systematic discrimination and harassment of the Shi’a community,” said Said Boumedouha.

Sheikh al-Nimr, a vocal critic of the Saudi Arabian authorities’ harassment of Shi’a Muslims, was initially charged with banditry and other offences after security agents claimed he had opened fire on them when he was arrested on 8 July 2012. The sheikh was shot and wounded during the arrest.

Evidence for all the other charges he was convicted of came from religious sermons and interviews attributed to the cleric. Amnesty International’s review of these texts confirms that he was exercising his right to free expression and was not inciting violence. Some of the charges, such as disobeying the ruler, should not be offences as they criminalize the right to freedom of expression. Other charges are vague and have been used simply to punish him for 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 defence 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,” said Said Boumedouha.

Sheikh al-Nimr, who is the Imam of al-Awamiyya mosque in al-Qatif, eastern Saudi Arabia, also suffered from ill-treatment throughout his two-year detention, most of which he spent in solitary confinement in military hospitals and at the al-Ha’ir prison in Riyadh.

Access to his family and lawyers – including during interrogations — has been irregular. He was also denied surgery to remove a bullet in his back.

Treatment for his right leg, which remains paralyzed since he was shot during his arrest, has also been refused.

Saudi Arabians in the Kingdom’s predominantly Shi’a Eastern Province have been calling for reforms since before February 2011, when the “Arab Spring” uprisings swept through the Middle East and North Africa.

Saudi authorities have responded by cracking down on those suspected of taking part in or supporting protests or expressing views critical of the state.

Members of the Shi’a community have been arrested, imprisoned and harassed for holding collective prayer meetings, celebrating Shi’a religious festivals and for breaching restrictions on building mosques and religious schools.

In May and June 2014 at least five Shi’a Muslims detained in connection with the 2011 and 2012 protests were sentenced to death on trumped-up charges related to their activism.

Amongst the five was Sheikh al-Nimr’s nephew Ali al-Nimr who was 17 at the time of his arrest. He reported that he was tortured into “confessing.”