In a First, Saudi Arabia Sentences Dissident Shiite Cleric To Death

Bahraini protesters hold up portraits of Saudi Shiite Cleric Nimr Al Nimr during clashes with riot police following a protest in solidarity with Al Nimr, in the village of Sanabis, west of Manama, on Oct. 15, 2014. A Saudi court sentenced prominent Shiite cleric Nimr Al-Nimr to death after convicting the anti-government protest leader of "sedition," his brother and lawyer said. Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty

While the U.S. and its Arab allies are fighting a war against the Sunni terrorist group the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), authorities in Saudi Arabia, a largely Sunni country and America's loyal ally in the region, is moving against a leader of its country's dissident Shiites.

Nimr al-Nimr, a Shiite cleric in his early 50s who has been the most prominent leader of protests demanding an independent state for Saudi Arabia's minority Shiites in its Eastern Province, was arrested in 2012 for sedition, tried, found guilty and sentenced to death. If the execution goes ahead as planned, al-Nimr will be the first Muslim cleric ever to be executed in Saudi Arabia.

His 2012 arrest immediately triggered a wave of protests. Thousands took part in heated demonstrations that spread from Qatif, in the Eastern Province, to small villages. In Qatif, where rioters took to the streets, police shot into the crowd, leaving two men killed and several others wounded. Similar demonstrations took place in countries to which Saudi civil rights activists have fled. Saudi authorities have portrayed al-Nimr as an "instigator of discord and rioting."

The Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, which borders the Persian Gulf, is the largest province in the kingdom and home to most of its oil production. It is also where most of the minority Shiite Muslims in Saudi Arabia live. They make up roughly a third of those living in the province.

The Shiite population has been mounting a long series of protests there, sparked by the events of the 2011 Arab Spring, a time when political change in the Middle East and across North Africa seemed possible. But the protests in the Eastern Province have been carefully hidden from Western view by the authorities in Riyadh.

Taking their cue from their protesting Shiite neighbors in Bahrain, the Saudi Shiites, who make up only 15 percent of the kingdom's 28.8 million population, began to rage against their Sunni rulers. They claim that they have long been discriminated against by the authorities, and that they are routinely denied basic employment rights and are not properly represented at the top of the Saudi government. There is, for instance, not a single Shiite minister or high-ranking diplomat in the kingdom.

Shiite cleric and government critic Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr lies wounded in the back of a police car, following his arrest on July 8, 2012. AFP/Getty

Dissatisfaction with the government came to a head when al-Nimr, the most prominent leader of the protests, was sentenced to death. The prospect of the cleric's imminent demise offers a grisly picture of justice in Saudi Arabia. Not only is al-Nimr expected to be beheaded, but his body will likely then be crucified, an even harsher sentence that means the cleric's headless corpse will be prominently displayed in a public place for several days.

Al-Nimr had been arrested many times before, notably for calling on residents of the Eastern Province to secede from Saudi Arabia and set up an independent state.

The striking, bearded cleric, who sometimes wears smoky John Lennon–style glasses, has always appealed to the young, disenfranchised Shiites of the region. His regular Friday speeches at the Awamiyya mosque in Qatif were fiery and passionate and have been uploaded on YouTube; one of them, uploaded in 2012, includes an insult to the late Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz: "He will be eaten by worms and suffer the torments of hell in his grave."

He has a loyal Facebook and Twitter following, with the "Free Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr" Facebook page, which organized worldwide protests after his 2012 arrest, attracting nearly 7,600 "likes." He has also earned widespread sympathy on Twitter from human rights activists, journalists and politicians, such as Britain's anti-Iraq War Member of Parliament George Galloway. The #FreeSheikNimr Twitter feed (@mzs1347) has attracted just over 400 followers.

Like many Shiite activists in Saudi, he appears not to be afraid of the kingdom's brutal stifling of all dissent.

There is no exact figure for the number of dissidents held in Saudi prisons, though some human rights officials believe the figure of 30,000 prisoners of conscience cited by the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association is probably exaggerated. It is safe to assume that there are thousands of political prisoners held in Saudi Arabia.

Most of the Gulf countries are authoritarian in their own way. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman do not respect freedom of expression, association and assembly. When it comes to religious freedom, Saudi is worse than the rest.

Al-Nimr was arrested several times between 2003 and 2008 and then again in July 2012. On that occasion, when security forces came to arrest him again, a scuffle between the Saudi police and his personal bodyguards turned into a shooting match. Al-Nimr took four bullets in the leg.

He has suggested that the authorities tried to assassinate him. He was held for eight months without being charged and for the first four months was kept in isolation in a prison hospital as he slowly recovered from his injuries.

Al-Nimr's family says that his bullet wounds were not properly treated and that when they were finally allowed to visit him, more than a week after he was arrested, he had been tortured and was suffering from head wounds. According to Press TV, "His sister said the detained cleric had turned weaker and that signs of torture were seen on his head."

According to Amnesty International, in May and June 2014, at least five Shiite Muslims were detained in connection with the 2011 and 2012 protests and were sentenced to death, among them Sheikh al-Nimr's nephew, Ali al-Nimr, who was 17 at the time of his arrest. He reported that he was tortured into "confessing." Ali al-Nimr was also tried and sentenced to death and is also currently appealing against both his sentence and verdict, which can take "many months" in Saudi Arabia, according to Adam Coogle of Human Rights Watch.

The Saudi justice system, which was "modernized" in 2008 with a system of "terrorist courts," is said by human rights workers such as Coogle to be riddled with injustice. Defendants' lawyers complain that often their clients are not shown the charge sheets for their crimes before they appear in court, and are not allowed to see lawyers or allowed the use of a pen and paper. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have condemned the Saudi government for committing systematic human rights abuses.

Even by Saudi standards, al-Nimr is reported to have been particularly badly treated. "He does not have access to any light, and [the conditions are] harsh where he is," says Ali al-Dubaisy, a Saudi human rights activist now living in Germany. "But still, he wrote 100 pages in prison, defending himself. This is after he was tied to his bed after the injury."

For the time being, the momentum for protests has been sapped as the authorities have made al-Nimr an example to deter dissent by others. But the grievances of the Shiites are not going to be forgotten. Inequality of wealth in super-rich Saudi Arabia is among the protesters' main concerns.

"You are now standing on top of oil fields that feed the whole world," one activist, Fadhil al-Safwani, told an undercover Saudi reporter for the BBC, Safa al-Ahmad, in May. "But we see nothing of [the proceeds of those lucrative oil sales]. Poverty, hunger. No honor, no political freedom. We have nothing. What is left? And after all this, they attack us and try to kill us."

Reporting is extremely difficult in Saudi. Al-Ahmad was denied a visa after repeated requests and eventually went to the Eastern Province, undercover with a small camera, to film what was going on there. Al-Ahmad was raised in the Eastern Province and could therefore blend in more easily, and she knew the terrain. Even so, she was harassed by the religious police—the Organisation for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue—who claimed her abaya (woman's robe) was not fastened properly. "It was difficult for me," she wrote. "I risked arrest."

Al-Dubaisy escaped from Saudi Arabia last May after being arrested twice. The 34-year-old says he was arrested with no charges and released after several days. When he heard he was going to be arrested the third time, he fled the country. He is now seeking political asylum in Germany. He says that discrimination against Shiites permeates "every aspect of life" in Saudi Arabia.

"It's been going on for more than 100 years," al-Dubaisy says. "It's a way of life. But it's not about Islam. It's about the Saudi government completely ignoring Shiite people."

One example al-Dubaisy gives is Qatif. "It is a city of 500,000 people, mainly Shiites, and there are 100 girls' schools," he says. "Not one of the managers of those schools is a Shiite."

The Saudi government has always denied that it discriminates against Shiites and lays the blame for exacerbating divisions between Shiite and Sunnis in the Middle East as a whole on Iran, the regional Shiite giant across the Persian Gulf. The Saudis fear a full-blown Shiite uprising in their country and are painfully aware that the jihadi war in Syria may be contagious. The kingdom has been blamed for the rise of ISIS, by funding it and other groups that are fighting to overthrow the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria.

"Demonstrations are illegal in Saudi Arabia," says Coogle. "We have seen dozens of arrests, and now we are seeing the harsh convictions coming in."

Shiites who attempt to protest in the Eastern Province are brutally repressed. Twenty have been killed since the protests began in early 2011, and others are languishing in jail for seemingly trivial crimes. In one case, a blogger, Fadhel al-Manasif, was sentenced to 15 years in prison, followed by a 15-year travel ban, simply for helping a Reuters journalist report on the protests.

Earlier this month, the Iranian press reported that al-Nimr—who also holds the high-ranking Muslim title of ayatollah—was pardoned and would not be beheaded. According to the Iranian reports, Hashemi Rafsanjani, the fourth president of Iran since 1997, sent a plea to Riyadh on behalf of the cleric, underlining the importance of trying to end the Sunni-Shiite schism.

"In this period of time that conspiracies have targeted the lands of the Islamic ummah, stopping the sentence for Ayatollah Sheikh Nimr Baqer al-Nimr will disappoint those who sow discord, will increase interactions and settle the problems of the Muslim world," he was quoted as saying in his appeal.

But the al-Nimr family, who has relayed news about the fate of the imprisoned sheik via Twitter, denied that Rafsanjani intervened or that al-Nimr had been pardoned. According to Sevag Kechichian, a Saudi and Yemen researcher from Amnesty International, "It was a false report. The sheik is still sentenced to death, although he obviously has the right to appeal. And even though the trial was deeply flawed, there is no indication that he will receive a fair appeal hearing."

What are the implications of the al-Nimr case on the troubled relations between Sunnis and Shiites that have riven the Middle East and caused the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria? Says Kechichian: "The repression against the Shia, regardless of the real reasons behind it, cannot but have a tremendously harmful impact on relations between Shia and Sunni communities throughout the region and the world."