Sheikh Nimr: Death sentence in Saudi Arabia

Sheikh Nimr: Death sentence in Saudi Arabia
Shia cleric condemned by a Saudi court for criticism of authorities' violent repression of demonstrations in the Qatif region
6 min read
22 October, 2014
Nimr's arrest sparked violent protests [AFP]

Shiekh Nimr al-Nimr was sentenced to death by a court on Saudi Arabia on 15 October. The Shia cleric was found guilty by the Special Criminal Court in Riyadh of disloyalty to the ruling family, supporting violent and destructive acts, believing the government of the Saudi kingdom to be illegitimate and supporting terror and violence in neighbouring countries.

Nimr has spoken out against repression of Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia, a minority in a state in which the official religion is a form of Sunni Islam commonly known as Wahhabism. He was arrested after a sermon he delivered in the town of al-Awamiya in the Shia-majority Qatif region of eastern Saudi Arabia in 2012. 

     In his sermon, Sheikh Nimr reportedly expressed his happiness at the death of Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz.

Nimr was critical of the Saudi authorities' violent repression of mass protests in 2011, which saw thousands of demonstrators take to the streets. In his sermon at the Awamiya mosque, the Shia sheikh reportedly expressed his happiness at the death of Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz. "Should we not be happy at the death of the one who kills our sons?" he is alleged to have said. "Should we not be happy at the death of the one who imprisons our sons? Should we not be happy at the death of the one who has caused fear and horror in our lives? Praise be to God." 

From al-Baqi to Awamiya 

Nimr was born in 1960, in the village of Awamiya, in the Qatif region of the eastern Saudi Arabia. He moved to Iran in 1979, after completing his secondary education, to study in a Shia seminary, and later continued his studies in Syria. 

Nimr returned to Saudi Arabia in 1994, after a 1993 accord between Shia opposition groups and Saudi authorities. However, al-Nimr's relationship with the authorities was tense, and he was called in for questioning by the security services on numerous occasions as a result of his demands for greater religious freedom. 

Nimr had more serious problems with the authorities. He was detained in 2003 after conducting public prayers at Karbala Square in Awamiya, and again in 2004 after calling for a mass commemoration of 1 May 1925 - the day the remains of the Prophet Mohammed's relatives were destroyed by Saudi authorities in Medina's al-Baqi Cemetery. 

However, Nimr only became widely known in Saudi Arabia after Shia pilgrims at al-Baqi Cemetery clashed with religious police and security forces in February 2009. The violence erupted after Shia pilgrims protested outside the office of the religious police against their filming of female Shia pilgrims. The clashes escalated and soon spread across the Eastern Province. 

Nimr gave a speech in which he held the political authorities directly responsible, accusing them of using the religious police to target the Shia community. He also declared that standing up to injustice was part of the Shia faith, and said that Saudi Shia would no longer be silent or afraid. This was the beginning of his direct confrontation with the Saudi state. 

The second uprising

Nimr was a vocal supporter of the protests against the Saudi authorities' violent repression of demonstrations that erupted in the Qatif region in February 2011, inspired by the success of protests in other Arab countries during the Arab Spring. The demonstrators demanded the release of Shia prisoners who had been held for years without public trial, without even being charged with any clear offence. It was the most serious unrest in the Qatif region since 1979.  

     The demonstrators demanded the release of Shia prisoners who had been held for years without public trial.

Nimr used his sermons at the Awamiya mosque to criticise the government's response to the protests and their security procedures that resulted in the death of at least six protesters and the arrest of many more. These sermons were recorded and soon spread online. 

Security forces raided the village of Awamiya a few days after his 2012 sermon in which he thanked God for the death of the Saudi crown prince. During his detention, Nimr was injured by four bullets in his leg. According to the official account, his injuries were sustained while he was attempting to escape arrest - an account that has been widely disputed. The sheikh's arrest sparked a wave of protest in the area that saw the deaths of two demonstrators and a police officer. 

The death sentence

After the court issued its death sentence, Nimr's family issued an online statement expressing shock at the verdict, and said they regarded it as a dangerous precedent. The family also accused the ruling of being politically motivated, noting that Nimr had always been peaceful and non-violent, and that he had "rejected the use of violence or weapons".

Protests against Nimr's sentence erupted in Qatif, and shots were fired at an oil pipeline, causing minor damage. There were also warnings the protests could escalate if the execution was carried out. Tens of thousands tweeted their support for Nimr on Twitter, while others tweeted in support of the verdict. 

"If Sheikh al-Nimr was a takfiri or violent it would be understandable, but you know his statement 'the roar of the word is stronger than the sound of bullets' and his defence of everyone without sectarianism," tweeted London-based Saudi dissident Hamza al-Hassan.

Ibrahim al-Faris, a Salafi preacher in Saudi Arabia, meanwhile tweeted: "He has been causing strife for years and inciting the rejectionists [a derogatory term for Shia] of Qatif, damning the companions of the Prophet, insulting the predecessors, completely loyal to Iran. Perhaps he will be crucified after being killed." 

Amnesty: Quash the verdict

Amnesty International has called for the death sentence against Nimr to be immediately quashed. Said Boumedouha, deputy director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Programme, said: "The death sentence against Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr is part of a campaign by the authorities in Saudi Arabia to crush all dissent, including those defending the rights of the kingdom's Shia Muslim community." 

     The death sentence against Sheikh Nimr... is part of a campaign by the authorities in Saudi Arabia to crush all dissent.  
- Amnesty International

Amnesty also expressed surprise at the arrest of al-Nimr's brother, Mohammad al-Nimr, who is believed to have been detained after tweeting about his brother's sentence.

"The shocking death sentence against Sheikh al-Nimr, followed by the arrest of his brother in court today, illustrate the lengths Saudi Arabia will go to in their quest to stop Shia activists from defending their rights," added Boumedouha. "Sheikh al-Nimr must be released and Saudi Arabia must end its systematic discrimination and harassment of the Shia community." 

Others who were critical of the verdict include the Bahraini opposition party al-Wefaq and Deputy Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian - who said if the news of the sentence were confirmed, it would be an insult to Muslims and result in an international reaction. 

Saudi Arabia treats its Shia population as a regional issue not a domestic one, heavily politicised because of the tense relationship it has with its Shia neighbour Iran.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic website.