RIYADH (Reuters) - A Saudi Arabian prosecutor has demanded the death penalty for a Shi’ite Muslim cleric whose arrest last summer led to deadly protests in the Sunni-ruled kingdom, local media reported on Wednesday.
Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, long seen as a radical leader in the Shi’ite minority, appeared in court on Monday for the first time since his arrest in July, the Saudi Gazette reported.
The prosecutor, accusing him of “aiding terrorists” and instigating unrest, said he was guilty of “waging war on God”, a crime in sharia, or Islamic law, that automatically carries the death penalty, al-Riyadh daily reported.
Saudi Arabia has no written legal code and judges have wide discretion to deliver verdicts based on their interpretation of sharia and without reference to precedent.
Tension is already running high over this month’s arrest of 16 Shi’ites accused of spying for Riyadh’s regional rival Iran. Tehran has denied spying in the kingdom and Shi’ite community leaders have said they do not believe the charges.
Police and protesters have clashed repeatedly in the past two years in the Eastern Province’s mostly Shi’ite Qatif area where 16 demonstrators and a security officer have been killed.
The government has attributed all the deaths to exchanges of fire with rioters. Shi’ite activists say police shot the 16 during peaceful demonstrations or during attempted arrests.
Nimr was based in al-Awamiyah, a neighbourhood in Qatif that has been a hotbed of unrest. When he was arrested in July the authorities said he had rammed a police car and possessed weapons. Local Shi’ite activists denied both accusations.
Three demonstrators were killed during protests in the days immediately after Nimr’s arrest.
Early last year the Interior Ministry issued a list of 23 people wanted over the unrest in Qatif, saying they were acting on behalf of an unamed foreign power, widely seen as Iran.
Nimr was accused of meeting some of these people while they were on the run.
He was also accused of interfering in the internal affairs of Bahrain, separated from Eastern Province by a 25 km (16 mile) causeway, where majority Shi’ites have led protests demanding the Sunni ruling family introduce democracy.
Saudi Shi’ites have long complained of persistent discrimination in the kingdom, where the majority follow the rigid Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam that sees Shi’ism as heretical. The authorities deny charges of discrimination.
Last week 37 Saudi Shi’ite leaders signed a statement accusing the government of using the spy ring allegation to stir sectarian tensions and distract Sunnis from demands for reform.
This month a Sunni cleric urged the government to free suspected Islamist militants and improve public services or risk street protests. Saudi Arabia has escaped the popular uprisings that have swept some other Arab states in the past two years.
Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Alistair Lyon