In the past two weeks, courts in Saudi Arabia have sentenced to death the relatives of prominent Shiite scholars known for speaking out against the Salafi-dominated government.
The punishment has been decreed for the nephew of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and for the son of Sheikh Jaafar al-Rubh, two well-known leaders of the Shia Muslim community in Saudi Arabia. About a dozen others are on trial for similar crimes.
The two Shiites were convicted of protesting against the government. Ali al-Nimr has been accused of “sedition, breaking allegiance to the king, rioting” and protest violence. According to Reuters, local activists dispute the claims of rioting and violence, asserting that the protests were peaceful and nonviolent.
Rida al-Rubh was convicted of firing at security forces; however, local media have not reported the recovery of any alleged firearms or any injuries from in the incident. Supporters assert that al-Rubh was unarmed and did not attack anyone.
While official Saudi statistics assert that the country’s Shiite population is at or below 1 million, Reuters reports that “U.S. diplomats in a 2008 embassy cable released by WikiLeaks estimated they represent up to 12 percent of the total Saudi population, which now numbers 20 million,” implying that the actual demographics of the Shia community are more than double what the Saudi government states.
The Council on Foreign Relations asserts that the percentage of Shiites in the country is as high as 15 percent, nearly triple the Saudi government’s count.
Sheikh al-Nimr himself also faces the death penalty on another charge. The Islam Times reports: “A Saudi prosecutor has demanded the death penalty for prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who was arrested last year over calls for the release of political prisoners.”
After multiple arrests in 2004 and 2006, an arrest warrant was issued after Sheikh al-Nimr delivered a fiery speech criticizing Saudi authorities. Despite the warrant, the sheikh was not arrested.
In 2012, The Guardian reported that Sheikh al-Nimr had taken a lead role in an uprising in Saudi Arabia.
In an interview with Rasid News Network, Sheikh al-Nimr denounced the use of firearms and weaponry: “Our position is not responding to lead bullets with firearms. [For those that use firearms] We do not accept this. This is not our practice. We will lose. It is not in our favor … This is our approach [use of words]. We welcome those who follow such attitude. … The weapon of the word is stronger than the power of lead.”
A few months later, the sheikh was arrested after being shot in the leg by security forces. According to a pro-government newspaper, The Saudi Gazette, security forces accused the sheikh of opening fire on Saudi security forces, who then responded by shooting Sheikh al-Nimr while he was in his vehicle and then arresting him.
Critics say that the account sounds fabricated and does not present a realistic series of events. According to Amnesty International, “his family said he was not armed, did not own a gun and was on his own at the time of his arrest.”
Since his arrest, family and friends of al-Nimr have accused the Saudi government of beatings and torture.
A Change.org petition has nearly 8,000 signatures calling for his release, and Amnesty International is reviewing the matter.
“It has been a month since his arrest and Amnesty International is not aware of any charges being brought against him. Amnesty calls on the Saudi Arabian authorities to either charge him with a recognisably criminal offence or release him,” Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa Program, said in a statement in 2012.
A Human Rights Watch article in 2011 titled “Saudi Arabia: Stop Arbitrary Arrests of Shia,” Christoph Wilcke, the group’s senior Middle East researcher, said: “Article 14 of the Arab Charter for Human Rights, to which the kingdom is a party, prohibits arbitrary arrest. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions says detentions are arbitrary if there is no clear legal basis for the arrest or if the person is arrested for exercising the human rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, among others.
“Saudi authorities should immediately stop arbitrary arrests of relatives, rights activists, and peaceful protesters.”
The call was made almost a year before the arrests and convictions of the al-Nimr and al-Rubh family members.