(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court sentenced a prominent Shia cleric to death on October 15, 2014. Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was convicted on a host of vague charges, based largely on his peaceful criticism of Saudi officials. Al-Nimr has a wide following in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, where most of the country’s Shia minority live.

The charges included “breaking allegiance with the ruler,” “inciting sectarian strife,” and supporting rioting and destruction of public property during 2011-2012 protests in Shia-majority towns and cities. Al-Nimr was also charged with violently resisting arrest in July 2012. Human Right Watch was not able to determine if the conviction was based on these charges, which al-Nimr has disputed. The proceedings of Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court, which conducted the trial in 13 sessions over a year and a half, raise serious fair trial concerns, Human Rights Watch said.

“Saudi Arabia’s harsh treatment of a prominent Shia cleric is only adding to the existing sectarian discord and unrest,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Right Watch. “Saudi Arabia’s path to stability in the Eastern Province lies in ending systematic discrimination against Shia citizens, not in death sentences.”

Authorities arrested al-Nimr’s brother and legal advocate, Mohamed al-Nimr, in the courtroom after he announced the verdict on Twitter. Human Rights Watch was not able to determine the reason for the arrest, but local activists said they believed it was to prevent him from speaking to the media about the trial.

The brother’s tweet said that the court rejected prosecutors’ request for a “crucifixion” sentence, the kingdom’s harshest, in which the convicted person is beheaded and the decapitated body displayed in public.

Authorities arrested Nimr al-Nimr in June 2012 and held him for eight months before bringing charges, although the Interior Ministry had labeled him an “instigator of discord and rioting” after his arrest. Officials claimed that he resisted arrest and rammed a security force’s vehicle, leading to a gun battle in which al-Nimr was wounded. Purported photos of the incident released by the local media show the wounded sheikh slumped in the back seat of a car wearing a bloodied white robe. A family member told Human Rights Watch that al-Nimr did not own a gun and that they dispute the claim that he resisted arrest.

Local activists and family members told Human Rights Watch that al-Nimr supported only peaceful protests and eschewed all violent opposition to the government. A 2011 BBC report quoted him as supporting “the roar of the word against authorities rather than weapons … the weapon of the word is stronger than bullets, because authorities will profit from a battle of weapons.” In another video available on YouTube, al-Nimr states, “It is not permitted to use weapons and spread corruption in society.”

Local activists told Human Rights Watch that authorities held al-Nimr in an isolation cell in the Security Forces Prison Hospital in Riyadh for much of his time in detention. Family members who visited said that he was held in a windowless cell measuring 4-by-4 meters. Authorities did not allow al-Nimr to speak freely with visiting family members for the first four months, but since November 2013 immediate family members have been able to see him in his cell for an hour every two weeks.

Saudi Arabia systematically discriminates against its Shia citizens, who constitute 10 to 15 percent of the population. This discrimination reduces Shias’ access to public education and government employment. They do not receive equal treatment under the justice system, especially with regard to religious freedom. Shia rarely receive permission to build mosques and, unlike their Sunni counterparts, do not receive government funds for religious activities.

Al-Nimr’s arrest caused demonstrations in Awamiyya, a Shia village in the Qatif district that has been the site of anti-government demonstrations since 2011. Media reported that security forces shot and killed two demonstrators on the evening of al-Nimr’s arrest.

The local activists, who asked not to be named for fear of arrest, said that al-Nimr had a strong following among Shia youth because of his outspoken criticism of government policies and advocacy of greater rights for the Shia. In late March 2009, al-Nimr suggested in a Friday sermon that the Shia might consider seceding from Saudi Arabia if the government continued to deny their rights. When security forces tried to detain him he went into hiding.

In June 2012, less than a month before his arrest, al-Nimr gave a Friday sermon following the death of Prince Nayef, the former interior minister. “Where is Nayef’s army?” al-Nimr said. “Can they stop his death? Where is his secret police? Where are his officers? Can they stop his death so that worms won’t eat him?”

Al-Nimr is the latest prominent Shia cleric to receive a harsh sentence from the Specialized Criminal Court. In August, the court convicted Tawfiq al-Amer for publicly demanding constitutional reforms and sentenced him to eight years in prison and a ten-year ban on foreign travel and delivering sermons. The court had originally sentenced him to a three-year prison term in December 2012, but an appeals court rejected that sentence as overly lenient.

Human Rights Watch has urged the Saudi authorities to abolish the Specialized Criminal Court, the body that convicted al-Nimr. The government set up the court in 2008 to try terrorism cases but has increasingly used it to prosecute peaceful dissidents on apparently politically motivated charges and in proceedings that violate the fundamental right to a fair trial.

A Human Rights Watch analysis in September of four trials of Shia protesters before the Specialized Criminal Court revealed serious due process concerns. They include broadly framed charges that do not resemble recognizable crimes, denial of access to lawyers at arrest and during pretrial detention, quick dismissal of allegations of torture without investigation, and admission as evidence confessions that defendants said were coerced without investigating their claims.

“Unfair trials of Shias amount to no more than a legal veneer for state repression of demands to end long-term discrimination,” Stork said. “Saudi Arabia’s judicial council should immediately review al-Nimr’s verdict and quash it if they discover clear due process violations.”