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Saudis open Iran spy trial against Shiite minority

Saudi Arabia has opened a trial against 32 Shiites for allegedly spying on behalf of arch-rival Iran. The espionage trial may increase already tense relations as Saudi and Iranian proxy wars engulf the region.

The 32 Shiites, including an Iranian and an Afghan, face a host of espionage charges in a secret court related to protests against the Sunni kingdom over entrenched discrimination against the Shiite minority.

The allegations come after the two rivals cut diplomatic ties following the storming and burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran in January. That unrest came as a response to Saudi Arabia executing prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who led largely peaceful protests against the kingdom in 2011.

The execution exacerbated already tense relations as the two countries vie for regional influence through

proxy struggles

in Syria, Iraq,

Lebanon,

Bahrain and Yemen that are fueling destabilization in the region.

The 32 are accused of high treason for working with Iranian intelligence, handing over defense secrets, committing economic sabotage, inciting sectarianism and working against community unity, according to local Saudi media. They also allegedly had banned books.

Watch video 02:51

Saudi Arabia executions spark outrage

The accused were arrested alongside hundreds of other members of the Shiite minority, estimated at roughly 15 percent of the population, following protests between 2011 and 2013 demanding greater equality.

A number of Shiites have been

sentenced to death

for their role in the protests, which left several protesters and police dead. Among those arrested were a university professor, a doctor, a banker and two clerics.

Saudi Arabia, which follows a strict form of Wahhabi Sunni Islam, has accused Iran of stirring up members of its Shiite minority, whose population is centered in the oil-rich eastern part of the country.

Saudi Arabia has never publically provided evidence of an Iranian role in the protests. Tehran has denied any involvement.

cw/rc (AFP, Reuters)

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