December 23, 2016
A Saudi court has sen-tenced 15 people to death for spying for Iran, a ruling that could further stoke tension between the two rival powers.
The specialized criminal court in Riyadh tried 32 people—30 Saudi Shias, one Iranian and one Afghan. It sentenced 15 to death, another 15 to prison terms ranging from six months to 25 years, and acquitted two, the Arabic-language Ar-Riyadh newspaper reported.
The sentence given the Iranian was not revealed. A source told Agence France Presse that one of the two foreigners was acquitted, but he didn’t say if the acquitted man was the Iranian or the Afghan.
The 32 accused were detained in 2013 on charges of spying for Iran and went on trial in February. The rulings are subject to appeal, and death sentences must go to the king for ratification.
The trial is the first in recent memory in which Saudi citizens have been accused of spying and comes at a time of high tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In January, Saudi Arabia executed prominent Shia cleric Nimr Baqir an-Nimr, who was convicted of involvement in the killing of policemen, prompting protesters in Tehran to storm and set fire to the Saudi embassy there. Riyadh broke off diplomatic ties the next day.
Many of the 32 were former employees of the Saudi Defense and Interior Ministries, Saudi media said. They were accused of setting up a spy ring and passing sensitive military and security information to Iran, seeking to sabotage Saudi economic interests, undermining community cohesion and inciting sectarian strife.
The charges also included supporting protests in the Shia-majority region of Qatif in Eastern province, recruiting others for espionage, sending encrypted reports to Iranian intelligence via email and committing high treason against the king.
Some of the defendants were accused of having personally met with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenehi.
Among those tried were an elderly university professor, a pediatrician, a banker and two clerics. Most were from al-Ahsa, a mixed Shia and Sunni region that is home to about half the members of the kingdom’s minority Shia community.
Saudi Arabia has blamed sporadic unrest among Shias in Qatif on Iran, but has never publicly presented evidence of a direct link between Tehran and those who took part in protests between 2011 and 2013. Nimr was viewed as a driving force behind those protests, which have since petered out. Iran denies any involvement.
Shias in Eastern province say they face persistent discrimination affecting their ability to work, study and worship freely, though Riyadh denies this.
Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Agence France Presse (AFP) the trial was “flawed from the beginning.”
It was tainted by allegations the accused did not have access to lawyers during interrogation, Coogle said.
They were also charged with offenses that do not resemble recognizable crimes, including “supporting demonstrations,” attempting to “spread the Shia confession” and “harming the reputation of the kingdom,” he said.