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Top Saudi court upholds death sentence for Shiite cleric

Saudi Arabia's Supreme Court has confirmed the death sentence for the popular Shiite leader Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on "sedition" charges. The sheikh's life now depends on the possibility of a royal pardon by King Salman.

Nimr's family and lawyers said Sunday that the court rejected the appeal filed by Nimr, who is known as a leader of anti-government protests.

After the Supreme Court's decision, "[Nimr's] life is in the hands of King Salman who can endorse the sentence or suspend the execution," the sheikh's brother Mohammed al-Nimr said.

The Shiite cleric was among the key figures of the Shiite 2011-2013 unrest in Saudi Arabia, sparked by the alleged sectarian discrimination and Riyadh's role in ending Shiite demonstrations in Bahrain.

More than 20 Shiites have been killed during the

clashes in the Saudi kingdom's east,

three of them at protests sparked by Nimr's arrest in 2012. The police shot Nimr in the leg before taking him into custody.

'Major trouble'

Last year, a

Riyadh court convicted the cleric to death

for "sedition" and "bearing arms," as well as other crimes, including calling for the collapse of the state and insulting relatives and companions of the Prophet Muhammad.

Nimr has not denied the political charges against him. However, he claims he has never called for violence.

"We hope a royal pardon will be issued," his brother Mohammed said. "This verdict could cause major trouble ... because my brother Sheikh al-Nimr is a prominent figure for Shiites, mainly in the Gulf."

Amnesty International has also called for Nimr's release, describing his trial as "deeply flawed."

Riyadh suspects Iran

There are about two million Shiites living in Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia, mostly in the oil-rich eastern part of the country.

The Shiite community accuses the Sunni regime of discrimination, which Riyadh denies.

At the same time, the central government suspects the Shiite-dominated Iran of inciting Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority to disobedience.

In last year's verdict, the court also found Nimr al-Nimr guilty of seeking "foreign meddling" in Saudi affairs, which observers have described as a thinly veiled reference to Iran.

On Sunday, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian decried the latest ruling, saying, "Saudi Arabia will pay a heavy price for the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr," according to Iran's ISNA news agency.

Saudi diplomats reject accusations

The Saudi authorities also arrested Nimr's nephew Ali Mohammed al-Nimr and three other young Shiite activists for taking part in anti-government demonstrations, and sentenced them to death last year.

Their case

sparked international criticism,

as the youths are believed to have been under age 18 at the time of their arrest.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia's London embassy decried the accusations that the sentences were politically motivated. The diplomats said that the kingdom "rejects any form of interference in its internal affairs and any impingement on its sovereignty."

British Prime Minister David Cameron said last week that he did not expect Ali Mohammed al-Nimr to be executed.

dj/gsw (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)

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