[JURIST] Shiite muslim cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was convicted Wednesday of sedition and other charges in Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court and sentenced to death, raising fears of unrest from his supporters in neighboring Bahrain. Al-Nimr has been a vocal critic of the majority Sunni government in Saudi Arabia and was a key leader in the 2011 Arab Spring-inspired Shiite protests in the country. Al-Nimr was found guilty [AP report] of not obeying King Abdullah, not pledging allegiance to him or the state, incitement of vandalism and sectarian strife, demonizing Saudi rulers, calling for the collapse of the state, and insulting relatives and companions of the Prophet Muhammad. Disobeying the ruler is a charge punishable by death. Prosecutors unsuccessfully asked that the body and head be put on public display, a severe punishment only rarely carried out. Al-Nimr will likely appeal the sentence, as activists are typically given long jail sentences on appeal despite harsh verdicts.
Saudi Arabia’s justice system has drawn international criticism in recent years, especially with regard to its high number of executions. Last month, two experts from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights urged Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to implement an immediate moratorium on the death penalty [JURIST report] following an increase in executions, with a significant number of the executions completed by beheading. In July then-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navy Pillay, expressed deep concern [JURIST report] over the harsh sentences and detention of peaceful human rights advocates in Saudi Arabia in recent months. In February JURIST Guest Columnist Adam Coogle of Human Rights Watch argued [JURIST op-ed] that a new Saudi Arabian terrorism law was a vague, catch-all document that can—and probably will—be used to prosecute or jail anyone who criticizes the Saudi government and to violate their due process rights along the way. Also in February AI criticized [JURIST report] the Saudi Arabian counterterrorism law on the basis that the law will deepen existing patterns of human rights violations and will be used to crack down on peaceful dissent.