Welcome to USCIRF

Saudi Arabia Executes Prominent Shi’a Cleric


January 5, 2016

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) condemns the execution on January 2 of a prominent Shi’a cleric in Saudi Arabia. Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a vocal government critic and an activist for democratic reforms in the Kingdom, was a staunch advocate of equal rights for the Shi’a Muslim population in Saudi Arabia.  Sheikh al-Nimr, whose case USCIRF has reported on in recent years, was among the 47 men executed that day.

Sheik al-Nimr’s execution blatantly disregards the right to dissent and the right to religious freedom of Shi’a Muslims in the country and, as our State Department has noted and events tragically have documented, contributes to sectarian discord both within Saudi Arabia and in the region," said Robert P. George, Chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).  “It is long past due for the government of Saudi Arabia to honor international standards of justice and ensure the religious freedom and equal protection rights of everyone in the Kingdom, including its Shi’a Muslim citizens.

The Saudi Arabian government’s execution of these 47 men was the largest mass execution in one day in the Kingdom since 1980.  Four Saudi Shi’a men were among those executed, including Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.  He was sentenced to death in October 2014 by a Specialized Criminal Court, a non-Shari’ah court that tries terrorism related crimes, although this court also has tried human rights activists.  Saudi officials often cite security concerns to justify cracking down on religious minorities and Muslim dissidents.

Sheikh al-Nimr’s trial and his execution raise serious due process and religious freedom concerns.  He was convicted and sentenced to death by the Specialized Criminal Court on a range of vague and questionable charges, including inciting sectarian strife and disobeying the government.  These charges do not meet the standard for capital punishment required under international human rights law. This Court, created in 2008 to try terrorism cases, has been used increasingly to prosecute peaceful dissidents in proceedings that violate the right to a fair trial,” said George.

Sheikh Al-Nimr had a wide following in Saudi Arabia among Shi’a Muslims, especially in the Eastern Province where most of the country’s Shi’a population lives. For years, and as noted in USCIRF’s Annual Reports, he has been an outspoken critic of Saudi officials and government policies and advocated for greater rights for Shi’a Muslims. He had been arrested and jailed several times for his advocacy before his most recent arrest and conviction.

The Saudi government limits Shi’a Muslims’ right to practice their religion, and rarely grants permission to Shi’a citizens to build mosques. For many years, the government has detained and imprisoned Shi’a Muslims for participating in demonstrations or calling for reform; holding small religious gatherings in private homes; organizing religious events or celebrating religious holidays; and reading religious materials in private homes or husseiniyas (prayer halls). The Shi’a community also faces discrimination in education, employment, the military, political representation, and the judiciary.

USCIRF continues to recommend that Saudi Arabia be designated a “country of particular concern” (CPC).  The government privileges its own interpretation of Sunni Islam over all other interpretations and prohibits any non-Muslim public places of worship in the country. It continues to prosecute and imprison individuals for dissent, apostasy, blasphemy, and sorcery, and a new 2014 law classifies blasphemy and advocating atheism as terrorism.  These actions reflect the fact that the Saudi system of justice does not meet international standards of fairness and due process.

For more information, please see the Saudi Arabia chapter in USCIRF’s 2015 Annual report.

To interview a USCIRF Commissioner, please contact USCIRF at media@uscirf.gov or 202-786-0615.