A Saudi court has sentenced prominent Shiite sheikh Nimr al-Nimr to death for sedition. The verdict is likely to escalate further the tensions between the kingdom's Shiite minority and the Sunni-led authorities.
Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who is 54 years old, was found guilty of "disobeying" the kingdom's rulers and of seeking "foreign meddling" in the country's affairs, a thinly veiled reference to Iran, whose regime is dominated by Shiites.
Al-Nimr had denied ever carrying weapons or calling for violence. He can appeal the sentence.
The well-known cleric was accused of being a driving force behind protests against Saudi Arabia's Sunni authorities in the Eastern province that began in 2011. This followed an outbreak of violence between Shiite pilgrims and religious police in Medina, the Muslim holy city.
He was shot in the leg and arrested by security forces in 2012, leading to more protests.
Shiites feel marginalized
Al-Nimr's family said the verdict set a "dangerous precedent for decades to come."
Saudi Arabia's roughly two million Shiites live mainly in the east of the country, where the majority of oil reserves are located. Despite the region's wealth, Shiites in Saudi Arabia say they feel marginalized and discriminated against.
Protests, which are banned in Saudi Arabia, escalated after the Saudi regime intervened in neighboring Bahrain to support its Sunni monarchy.
In June this year, a Saudi court sentenced two people to death for "taking part in forming a terrorist group" and other crimes linked to the protests by Shiites. Several others have received multi-year jail sentences.
According to Human Rights Watch, more than 1,040 people were detained in Shiite protests between February 2011 and August 2014. There are at least 280 still imprisoned.
Last year the conservative Islamic kingdom executed more people than any other country except China and Iran, most of them by public beheading.
ng/ipj (AFP, Reuters)