The Detention of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr
On October 15th, Saudi Arabia sentenced Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, an outspoken Shia cleric, to death on charges of, “disobeying the ruler,” “inciting sectarian strife,” and, “encouraging, leading, and participating in demonstrations.” Although it is still possible for the ruling to be overturned by appeal or royal pardon, the judgment has sparked a wave of unrest in the largely-Shia Eastern Province not seen since the heart of the Arab Spring uprisings.
Al-Nimr is known for his candid and robust condemnations of Bahrain’s Saudi-assisted clampdown on pro-democracy protests during the Arab Spring.
Amnesty International condemned the ruling and raised questions about the legitimacy of the trial. Said Boumedouha, the Deputy Director of the organization’s Middle East and North Africa program, said in a statement, “Sheikh al-Nimr’s trial has been seriously flawed. Eyewitnesses, whose testimonies were the only evidence used against him, were not brought to court to testify. This violates the country’s own laws. The Sheikh was denied the most basic means to prepare for his defense and was not represented by legal counsel for some of the proceedings because authorities did not inform his lawyer of some dates of the hearings.”
This is not the first time al-Nimr has run into trouble with the Saudi Arabian authorities. He was detained 5 times between 2003 and 2008. Before his most recent arrest, his most serious detention occurred in 2012, when he was arrested after supporting pro-democracy protests in eastern Saudi Arabia. He was shot in the leg four times upon arrest, and was then held for eight months before being charged.
The sentencing of Sheikh Nimr is a symptom of the much larger issue of Shia marginalization in Sunni autocracies throughout the Middle East.
Bahrain is one example. The small, island country is controlled by a Sunni monarchy with close ties to Saudi Arabia, yet the population itself is 70% Shia. Arab Spring uprisings in the country nearly toppled the government, but Saudi Arabia sent reinforcements to crack down on protestors.
The result has been smoldering sectarian tensions in the country, and the government has increasingly restricted free speech. Nabeel Rajab, the head of Bahrain’s Center for Human Rights, an advocacy group for democracy in Bahrain, was arrested on October 1st for simply tweeting, “Many #Bahrain men who joined #terrorism & #ISIS came from security institutions and those institutions were the first ideological incubator,” to his 243,000 twitter followers. In July, the country expelled Tom Malinowski, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, after he met with members of the opposition.
While Bahrain has certainly drawn ire from the international community over its crackdown on dissent, it is certainly far from the only country to marginalize its Shia population. As Sheikh Nimr’s prosecution shows, Saudi Arabia has also cracked down on its Shia population.
When asked about his opinion of the al-Saud regime, Nimr said, “If injustice stops against Shiites in the east, then I can have a different opinion.”