There has been an international outcry in recent days after a judge in Saudi Arabia handed down a death sentence to a prominent Shi’ite cleric, prompting protests among the minority Shi’ite population in the country. Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was convicted of "disobeying the ruler" and "inciting sectarian strike." Analysts fear the sentence could exacerbate the already high sectarian tensions in the country.
Shi’ites living in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province have long complained that they are marginalized under the Sunni monarchy. The death sentence handed to Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr will ratchet up tensions further, according to Jane Kinninmont of the Middle East program at policy group Chatham House.
“Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr is a very politically outspoken Shia cleric. He may not represent the mainstream Shia community in Saudi Arabia, but he’s very popular with the youth, both in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia and in Bahrain,” said Kinninmont.
Following the death of a Shi’ite protester in clashes with police two years ago, Sheikh Nimr posted a video on the Internet, accusing Saudi authorities of targeting Shi’ites.
“Why do you attack us, a few dozen poor souls?” he asks in the video. “If a 'foreign country' is responsible, then attack the source of the problem. If it's Iran you mean then attack it, and let's see what you're capable of.”
The trial leading to his death sentence was unfair, said May Romanos of Amnesty International.
“Sheikh al-Nimr wasn’t allowed to have his lawyer in some of the hearing because the lawyer was simply not notified about the hearing taking place. Some of the charges also brought against him were based on eyewitnesses who weren’t called for court, so it was only on testimonies,” said Romanos.
Shi’ites form the majority in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. They have long complained of discrimination by the ruling Sunni monarchy.
"When uprisings swept the Arab world in the spring of 2011, there were demonstrations in Shi’ite towns and villages. Saudi authorities cracked down hard, arresting hundreds of protesters," said Romanos
“Some of the activists who took part in these protests were even sentenced to death. We have recorded in May and June this year, at least five Shia activists being sentenced to death for their activism,” she said.
Kinninmont said the Shi’ite-led protests have not gained momentum because they are not supported by the Sunni majority.
“What would really change the game would be if people could overcome that sectarian divide and make some kind of united front, calling for reforms, calling for a constitutional monarchy, more rights and so forth. But that has not been seen, even in recent years since 2011,” said Kinninmont.
Sheikh Nimr is a critic of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, despite the fact that Assad is backed by Iran. Saudi authorities could have exploited Sheikh Nimr’s perceived independence,said Kinninmont.
“It’s been very rare to see religious figures who have criticized both the governments of Bahrain and the government of Syria for using authoritarian and aggressive tactics. So this is someone who can claim to be unusually consistent and actually speaking up for human rights, not just Shia rights,” said Kinninmont.
Kinninmont said if Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr is executed, it likely would trigger even larger protests. It is possible his death sentence will be commuted on appeal -- or the King may issue a Royal pardon.