RIYADH: A Saudi court on Tuesday sentenced 15 people to death for spying for the kingdom’s rival Iran, local media and a source close to the case said, in a move likely to heighten regional tensions.
The source told AFP that most of the 15 Saudis were members of the kingdom’s Shia minority. Their trial opened in February, a month after Riyadh cut diplomatic ties with Tehran over the burning of the Saudi embassy and a consulate by Iranian demonstrators protesting the kingdom’s execution of cleric Nimr al-Nimr.
The most serious charge levelled against them was high treason. Prosecutors also alleged the accused had divulged defence secrets, tried to commit sabotage, to recruit moles in government departments, to send coded information, and supported “riots” in the eastern district of Qatif, Saudi media reported.
The 15 were among a group of 32 people tried over the espionage allegations, Alriyadh newspaper said on its website. Some of the defendants were accused of meeting Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The death sentences will be appealed, said the source close to the case, who cannot be identified due to its sensitivity. Two of the group were acquitted while the rest received jail sentences of between six months and 25 years.
Apart from one Iranian and an Afghan, all of the defendants were Saudis. The source said that one of the two acquitted was a foreigner.
Syria, Yemen tensions
Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), told AFP that the trial was “flawed from the beginning.” It was tainted by allegations that the accused did not have access to lawyers during interrogation, he said.
They were also charged with offences that do not resemble recognisable crimes, including “supporting demonstrations,” attempting to “spread the Shia confession,” and “harming the reputation of the kingdom,” he said.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are at odds over a range of issues including the wars in Syria and Yemen.
Saudi Arabia has also expressed concern over an international agreement that lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for guarantees it would not pursue a nuclear weapons capability. Riyadh fears the pact will lead to more Iranian “interference” in the region.
With relations at a low, Iranian pilgrims in September — for the first time in nearly three decades — did not attend the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia after the two countries failed to agree on security and logistics.
Nimr, the executed cleric whose case sent tensions soaring, was a driving force behind protests that began in 2011, which developed into a call for equality in the Sunni-dominated kingdom, where the Shias have long complained of marginalisation.
Nimr was convicted of terrorism and executed in January alongside 46 other people — mostly Sunnis — found guilty of the same crime.