DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A widely revered Shiite Muslim cleric was convicted Wednesday in Saudi Arabia of sedition and other charges and sentenced to death, raising fears of renewed unrest from his supporters in the kingdom and neighboring Bahrain.
Sheik Nimr al-Nimr, an outspoken government critic who was a key leader of the 2011 Arab Spring-inspired Shiite protests in eastern Saudi Arabia, was found guilty in the Specialized Criminal Court, set up in 2008 to handle terrorism cases.
The verdict underscored the limits of free speech in Saudi Arabia and its long-standing problems with a Shiite minority that complains of excessive discrimination.
It also illustrates the sectarian tensions throughout the region — including neighboring Yemen, where Shiite insurgents have gained ground against the Saudi-backed government in recent months.
Al-Nimr has been a vocal critic of the government of Bahrain, where a Sunni-led monarchy harshly suppressed protests by Shiites who make up the majority of the tiny island nation. Saudi Arabia sent troops to help Bahrain crush the uprising, fearing it would spread.
The official Saudi Press Agency carried news of the verdict but did not name al-Nimr. It said the accused was found guilty of — among other things — not obeying King Abdullah, not pledging allegiance to him or the state, incitement of vandalism and sectarian strife, demonizing Saudi rulers, calling for the collapse of the state and insulting relatives and companions of the Prophet Muhammad.
Disobeying the ruler is a charge that can carry the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.
Those close to al-Nimr say charges of encouraging protests and sectarian conflict in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province should not be treated as a capital crime.
Amnesty International said the verdict against the 54-year-old cleric was part of a campaign by Saudi authorities to "crush all dissent."
The prosecution had asked for execution, which in Saudi Arabia is usually carried out by beheading. It unsuccessfully asked that the body and severed head be put on public display — a punishment considered so severe that it is only rarely carried out.
Al-Nimr can appeal the sentence, and observers said it is unlikely the kingdom will actually execute such a popular cleric. Despite harsh verdicts against government critics, activists are typically given long jail sentences on appeal.
Two of al-Nimr's brothers also appear to have been arrested Wednesday. The cleric's brother, Montathir al-Nimr, wrote on Twitter that another brother, Mohammed al-Nimr, was arrested after the verdict. Activists said Jaafar al-Nimr was also arrested in Riyadh when he went to inquire about Mohammed.
Before his arrest in 2012, al-Nimr had said the people do not want rulers who kill and carry out injustices against protesters. He was asked at his trial if he disapproves of the Al Saud ruling family.
"If injustice stops against Shiites in the east, then (at that point) I can have a different opinion," the cleric responded, according to his brother Mohammed, who attended court sessions and spoke to The Associated Press before the verdict.
The Saudi Press Agency said the judges felt the defendant was "insistent" and "stubborn" throughout the trial.
Al-Nimr did not deny the political charges against him, but said he never carried weapons or called for violence.
The cleric's family said in a statement that the verdict sets a "dangerous precedent for decades to come."
In Shiite powerhouse Iran, the deputy foreign minister for Arab and African Affairs condemned the death sentence for al-Nimr. Iranian state TV quoted Hossein Amir-Abdollahian as saying that if the ruling was true, "there is no doubt that the feelings of Muslims will be marred and a global response will follow."
Bahraini authorities Wednesday painted over pictures of al-Nimr that had been plastered on walls by Shiite supporters. Dozens of protesters carrying photos of al-Nimr took to the streets Tuesday before clashing with police in a restive area southeast of Bahrain's capital, Manama. There were more protests in the same area after the verdict.
Human Rights Watch Middle East researcher Adam Coogle said Saudi fears about Iran may have played a part in al-Nimr's trial. He said Saudi authorities view the 2011 protests in Bahrain and eastern parts of Saudi Arabia as "meddling" by Iran.
There is also concern among Saudi officials that if they acquiesce to Shiite demands for greater rights, it could lead to calls for reforms in other areas, Coogle said.
"I think the message that Saudis are saying is: 'We will arrest anybody. We don't care how high profile they are. ... Nobody is above this. We don't have any tolerance. We don't have any flexibility,'" he said.
According to Human Rights Watch, more than 1,040 people were detained in Shiite protests between February 2011 and August 2014. There are at least 280 still imprisoned.
Many ultraconservatives of the Saudi Wahhabi school of Islam view Shiites as heretics. For years, some Wahhabi clerics openly incited youths to fight in Syria and Iraq against Iranian-backed governments there.
"There were prominent Saudi sheiks that incited youth to violence and jihad abroad, but were not sentenced to death or even imprisoned," said Waleed Sulais, a writer based in the eastern Qatif region. "On the other hand, prominent cleric al-Nimr called on people to use peaceful means of protest."
Earlier this year, King Abdullah made it illegal to call for holy war or fight as a militant abroad.
Sulais said Saudi Arabia's political situation is "deteriorating rapidly" and requires conciliatory overtures by the government.
Renowned activist Jaafar al-Shayeb said Saudi Arabia's leadership treats Shiite grievances as a security problem rather than an issue to be resolved politically.
Al-Shayeb was among four Shiites who met with the late King Fahd in 1993 for reconciliation talks after years of violence that included attacks by the Saudi Shiite Hezbollah group, which the kingdom has branded a terrorist organization.
The meeting — the culmination of many discussions between Saudi officials and Shiite activists in exile — resulted in the return of some 350 activists to the kingdom, the release of political prisoners and a more relaxed policy that allowed the building of more Shiite mosques.
"There are some talks with the government, but not at the same level," al-Shayeb said. "The sectarian strife in the region plays a role. ... There is a new generation with new demands."