RIYADH // A Saudi Arabian prosecutor has demanded the death penalty for a Shiite cleric whose arrest last summer led to deadly protests.
Sheikh Nimr Al Nimr, long seen as a radical leader in the Shiite minority, appeared in court on Monday for the first time since his arrest in July, the Saudi Gazette reported yesterday.
The prosecutor, accusing him of "aiding terrorists" and instigating unrest, said he was guilty of "waging war on God", a crime in Sharia that automatically carries the death penalty, the Al Riyadh daily reported.
Saudi Arabia has no written legal code and judges have wide discretion to deliver verdicts based on their interpretation of Sharia and without reference to precedent.
Tension is already running high over the arrest of 16 Shiites this month. They are accused of spying for Iran. Tehran has denied spying in the kingdom and Shiite community leaders have said they do not believe the charges.
Police and protesters have clashed repeatedly in the past two years in the Eastern Province's mostly Shiite Qatif area where 16 demonstrators and a security officer have been killed.
The government has attributed all the deaths to exchanges of fire with rioters. Shiite activists say police shot the 16 during peaceful demonstrations or during attempted arrests.
Sheikh Al Nimr was based in Al Awamiyah, a neighbourhood in Qatif that has been a hotbed of unrest. When he was arrested in July the authorities said he had rammed a police car and possessed weapons. Shiite activists from Qatif said both accusations were untrue.
Three demonstrators were killed during protests in the days immediately after Sheikh Al Nimr's arrest.
Early last year the interior ministry issued a list of 23 people wanted over the unrest in Qatif, saying they were acting on behalf of an unnamed foreign power, widely seen as Iran.
Sheikh Al Nimr was accused of meeting some of these people while they were on the run.
He was also accused of interfering in the internal affairs of Bahrain, separated from Eastern Province by a 25km causeway, where majority Shiites have led protests demanding the Sunni ruling family introduce democracy.
Saudi Shiites have long complained of persistent discrimination in the kingdom.
The authorities deny charges of discrimination.
Last week 37 Saudi Shiite leaders signed a statement accusing the government of using the spy ring allegation to stir sectarian tensions and distract Sunnis from demands for reform.
This month a Sunni cleric urged the government to free suspected Islamist militants and improve public services or risk street protests. Saudi Arabia has escaped the popular uprisings that have swept some other Arab states in the past two years.