Thursday, September 4, 2014
Saudi Arabia and Bahrain rank among the world’s worst offenders in terms of respect for free expression. Journalists are routinely beaten and jailed for their reporting, as are protesters who dare to question the oppressive regimes that govern both countries. Minority religious leaders also face persecution, among them Nimr Baqer Al-Nimr. CJFE volunteer Shenaz Kermalli discusses the persecution Al-Nimr has endured for promoting minority rights in Saudi Arabia.
This article was originally published in the Toronto Star.
A protester holds up a picture of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr during a rally in Qatif against Sheikh Nimr's arrest July 8, 2012. PHOTO: REUTERS/Stringer
By Shenaz Kermalli
A charismatic ayatollah imprisoned in Saudi Arabia since the Arab Spring for speaking out against the kingdom’s ruling family faced a grisly death sentence when he appeared in court in a case that could inflame sectarian tensions in the region.
The hearing on Sunday concluded the trial but no verdict or sentence was given. The next hearing is expected to be the sentencing, but there is no indication of when that will be.
Nimr Baqer Al-Nimr was charged with “inciting terrorist offences” and “breaking allegiance to the king” through sermons on government corruption and its harsh treatment of political prisoners.
“Our wish is to overthrow all forms of injustice and despotism, to choose our rulers and for our children to live securely and safely, with freedom of sect and politics,” he said in July 2012, following opposition protests across the region.
In one sermon, he called on Saudi princes and princesses by name to stop “killing our sons” and urged Saudis to fight what he called the “illegitimate” royal families in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain
— a crime that almost certainly would result in a death sentence in this secretive authoritarian state.
“What gives the House of Saud the power to inherit the throne?” he declared then. “The House of Saud and Khalifa (in Bahrain) are mere collaborators with and pawns of the British and their cohorts. It is our right, and the right of the Bahraini people, and all people everywhere, to choose our leaders and demand that rule by succession be done away with as it contradicts our religion.”
Al-Nimr reaffirmed his statements last Sunday during a court appearance in Riyadh. After watching video clips of selected sermons deemed offensive by the prosecution, he replied: “What I’ve heard is true . . . I don’t have a loyalty to the Saudi state. This is my personal view, and no one has the right to put me in court for my personal opinion.”
Al-Nimr was arrested after what police called a gun battle in July 2012 during which he was shot in the leg four times for allegedly resisting arrest
. Photographs published by local media showed the ayatollah slumped in the back seat of a car wearing a white robe stained with blood.
But his relatives and followers deny police claims of rioting and violence, saying the protests were peaceful and that al-Nimr never refused arrest nor owned a gun.
At his first court hearing in March 2013, prosecutors suggested he receive the country’s harshest form of sentence as punishment for his crimes — “crucifixion” — where the decapitated body is publicly displayed. But the trial has been delayed several times, with the prosecution being asked several times to present further evidence.
Al-Nimr’s case puts the Al-Saud regime in a precarious position. If they choose to sentence him to death, they risk more protests taking place in the already restive Eastern Province where most of the country’s Shia minority and political opposition is based.
They also risk reinforcing the perspective of a sectarian war in the region. And with stern warnings not to execute Al-Nimr from Iraq’s most influential Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, as well as the Shia clergy in Iran
and militant group Hezbollah
, analysts say that it’s unlikely — though not entirely inconceivable — that a death sentence will be passed.
“Saudi Arabia is used to crushing dissidence violently,” says Catherine Shakdam, the Associate Director of the Beirut Centre for Middle East Studies. “This time Riyadh might have hit a brick wall. The fear barrier was broken a while back in the kingdom . . . Saudis have watched regimes fall and new ones rise in the region. They understand the power which lies with the people.”
Through Al-Nimr, “Saudi Arabia is condemning Shia Islam with a message which has been heard loud and clear,” she adds. “And as Hezbollah has warned, this could prompt unrest across the region as Shias will radicalize their positions and view Sunnis as a threat to their very existence. (Terrorist group) ISIS is not helping as it has targeted Shia Muslims in both Iraq and Syria.”
One likely scenario is that the judge will condemn the cleric to life imprisonment as a strategy to negotiate with later, says Haytham Mouzahem, a Lebanese analyst from the Al-Monitor news. In other words, if anyone does anything wrong in the Eastern Province, they can threaten to kill him.
Al-Nimr’s calls for reform are especially appealing to disaffected Saudi youth in the Eastern province, who suffer from decades of systematic discrimination in public education and government employment. A Human Rights Watch report last year
found that Shia minorities do not receive equal treatment under the justice system, and rarely receive permission to build mosques or receive government funds for religious activities, unlike Sunni citizens.
One student, a close relative to Al-Nimr, likened him to Martin Luther King. “He would always encourage us to protest for our equal rights and freedoms — but to protest kindly and not ever with any sort of violence, much like when Martin Luther King encouraged blacks to protest for their freedom in America,” he says.
“Like Martin Luther King, he had a dream — to see all people treated equally regardless of race, religion, class, etc. We all desire to just have our freedom, our rights, and to live the same life as other people in the country.”
He recalls the last time he was allowed to visit the ayatollah for a few minutes in hospital after his arrest. “He gave me some advice I will never forget: “Always stand up for your rights, even if you are alone.”
Young people outside the Middle East are drawn to his message too. Zena Habiba, a British-Iraqi woman, started a Facebook group to campaign for his release last year in response to demand from his English-speaking followers.
“I have no relation to Sheikh Al-Nimr but I was attracted to his personality because he seems to be so outspoken and fearless,” she says.
Ahmad Malik (also not his real name), a 29-year-old former political prisoner now based in the U.S., says if the ayatollah is executed the youth in the Eastern Province will fight back with any means they have.
“We will write articles and books about him. We will print his words and hang them on the wall. We will fill the media with his pictures. We will teach our kids about him. And we will never ever forget him.”
Shenaz Kermalli is a Toronto-based journalist who specializes in Middle Eastern issues.