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Saudi Arabia condemns 15 Shiites for spying for Iran

A Saudi court has sentenced 15 Shiites to death for spying for Iran in a trial criticized by rights groups. The sentences are likely to further strain ties between rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Following what the rights group Amnesty International has called an unfair trial and travesty of justice, a court in Saudi Arabia sentenced 15 Shiite Muslims to death on Tuesday after finding them guilty of spying for regional rival Iran.

The special security and counterterrorism court issued the sentence as part of a ruling against 32 people, all Saudi nationals, except for an Iranian and an Afghan. In addition to the death sentences, another 15 Shiite Muslims were slapped with sentences of between six months and 25 years. The Afghan was one of two persons acquitted.  The convicted can appeal the decisions.

Prosecutors alleged that members of the Shiite minority had established a spy ring with Iranian intelligence in the Sunni kingdom, providing Iran with sensitive military information, engaging in economic sabotage, inciting sectarian strife and participating in anti-government protests.

The 32 people accused had been arrested in 2013 and 2014 and were held incommunicado without warrants or access to lawyers as they were interrogated and forced to sign confessions, Amnesty International announced. Some of the accused were threatened with solitary confinement and the arrest of their families if they did not confess.

"Sentencing 15 people to death after a farcical trial which flouted basic fair trial standards is a slap in the face for justice," said Samah Hadid, the deputy director for campaigns at Amnesty International's Beirut regional office.

The trial began in February, after the men had spent nearly three years in custody. A few of the accused had to defend themselves, and lawyers for the others had less than a month to prepare a case without crucial information, Amnesty reported.

"The fact that the men were held incommunicado for three months, denied access to a lawyer during the interrogations, and that the court failed to adequately investigate the men's claims that they were coerced to 'confess' makes this little more than a sham trial," Hadid said.

The sentencing is likely to further inflame tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran as they fight proxy wars in Syria and Yemen and vie for influence in Lebanon and Iraq.

The Sunni and Shiite giants of the Middle East cut ties after protesters pillaged the Saudi embassy in Tehran and consulates in Iran after the country executed the prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr in January on terrorism charges. Last month, an Iranian court sentenced an undisclosed number of those accused of storming the diplomatic missions to three to six months in jail; other defendants were acquitted.

Nimr had led the 2011 protests against the discrimination against and marginalization of Saudi Arabia's Shiite community, which is largely concentrated in the oil-rich eastern corner of the kingdom.

In a sign of how relations have hit rock bottom, for the first time in three decades Iran did not participate in the annual hajj pilgrimage in September, after the two countries failed to agree on security and logistics. That spat grew out of a crush the previous year in Mecca that left more than 2,000 pilgrims dead, including 464 Iranians.

cw/mkg (AFP, AP)

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