Saudi Arabia sentences 15 people to death for spying for Iran

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  • As Russia Promises to Wipe Out Anyone Left in Eastern Aleppo

A Saudi court has sentenced 15 people to death for spying for Iran, Saudi-owned media has reported, in a ruling that could further stoke tension between the two rival powers.

The specialised criminal court in Riyadh sentenced 15 other suspects to prison terms ranging from six months to 25 years, and acquitted two, the Arabic-language al-Riyadh newspaper reported.

The suspects – 30 Saudi Shia Muslims, one Iranian and an Afghan – were detained in 2013 on charges of spying for Iran and went on trial in February. The rulings are subject to appeal, and death sentences must go to the king for ratification.

The trial is the first in recent memory in which Saudi citizens have been accused of spying and comes at a time of high tension between Saudi Arabia, the regional Sunni powerhouse, and Iran, a non-Arab Shia theocracy, over influence in the Middle East.

In January, Saudi Arabia executed prominent Shia cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, who was convicted of involvement in the killing of policemen, prompting protesters to storm the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Riyadh then broke off diplomatic ties.

Many of the suspects are former employees of the Saudi defence and interior ministries, Saudi media said. They were accused of setting up a spy ring and passing sensitive military and security information to Iran, seeking to sabotage Saudi economic interests, undermining community cohesion and inciting sectarian strife.

The charges also included supporting protests in the Shia-majority region of Qatif in Eastern province, recruiting others for espionage, sending encrypted reports to Iranian intelligence via email and committing high treason against the king.

Among those arrested in 2013 were an elderly university professor, a paediatrician, a banker and two clerics. Most were from al-Ahsa, a mixed Shia and Sunni region that is home to about half the members of the kingdom’s minority Shia community.

The timing of the Saudi court announcement is deeply embarrassing for the UK prime minister, Theresa May, who is currently on a two-day visit to Bahrain where as guest of honour she will meet the six members of the Gulf Co-operation Council and hold bilateral talks with King Salman of Saudi Arabia. The British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, is also due to visit the region soon.

May has already faced criticism from human rights groups for her willingness to set aside human rights concerns in the Gulf to pursue defence contracts and seal free trade deals following the Brexit vote. The Foreign Office campaigns against the death penalty as one of its human rights objectives.

There will also be astonishment in diplomatic circles that the Saudis did not realise the timing of the announcement would deepen the controversy over her visit and the warmth of her contacts with the Saudis.

The Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, has twice in the past two months come to parliament to speak to MPs to persuade them that the country is reforming and to defend the conduct of the Saudi air campaign in the civil war in Yemen. May’s government has rejected calls to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia, saying it has not been proven that the arms are being used in breach of international humanitarian law.

The human rights organisation Reprieve had written to May before the visit asking her to raise concerns about the sentencing to death of three children arrested for street protests against the king.

Reprieve claims “Saudi Arabia has sentenced to death Abdullah al Zaher, Dawoud al Marhoon and Ali al Nimr for alleged involvement in protests in the kingdom, despite their being 15, 17 and 17 respectively at the time of their arrest”.

Reprieve adds “All three were tortured into ‘confessions’ and convicted in secretive trials. They remain imprisoned under sentence of death and could be executed at any time, without even their families being informed beforehand. On 2 January, several juveniles were among 47 people executed en masse in the kingdom”.

Saudi Arabia has blamed sporadic unrest among Shias in Qatif on Iran, but has never publicly presented evidence of a direct link between Tehran and those who took part in protests between 2011 and 2013. Iran denies any involvement.

Shias in Eastern province say they face persistent discrimination affecting their ability to work, study and worship freely, though Riyadh denies this.

Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran soured after the latter’s 1979 revolution, which brought Shia clerics to power. Saudi Arabia follows the rigid Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam in which Shias are seen as heretics.

In the meantime, Russian officials are threatening to target anyone who refuses to leave the rebel-held eastern Aleppo, after another round of talks between Washington and Moscow failed to materialize on Tuesday.

As Syrian government forces and their allies continue to snatch neighborhoods away from rebels inside the city in bloody street-by-street fighting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov  said Tuesday that “if somebody refuses to leave Aleppo on good terms, he will be eliminated…there is no other way out.”

Russian and Syrian warplanes have been bombarding the rebel-held half of Aleppo for months, targeting hospitals, aid workers, and civilian apartment blocks for destruction. Hundreds of civilians have been killed, with as many as 250,000 people trapped in the densely-packed city surrounded by government forces, and sharing space with a variety of rebel groups.

Last month, Syrian planes dropped leaflets over the city warning residents to “save yourselves. You know that everyone has left you alone to face your doom and have offered you no help.”

Moscow has long painted all anti-government rebels in Syria with the same brush, and refuses to acknowledge the differences between Islamist groups like the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, and more moderate, U.S.- and Turkish-backed rebel units.

“It’s sad that the Western nations, which talk about their concern for human rights and the humanitarian situation in Aleppo and the rest of Syria, are in reality continuing their policy of supporting radicals and extremists,” Lavrov said.

Russia and Syria seem intent on presenting President-elect Donald Trump with a fait accompli in Syria by taking Aleppo, one of the last major cities in rebel hands. On the campaign trail, Trump suggested letting Russia take the lead against Islamic State, later even offering to cooperate with Moscow to battle the terrorist group in Syria. That would mean abandoning the moderate rebels battling the regime of Bashar al Assad as well as the civilian population in areas targeted by Russian and Syrian attacks.

One U.S. defense official, who spoke to FP on the condition of anonymity, said that Russian planes have been conducting daily sorties over Aleppo for weeks, and have also regularly bombed the Turkish- and U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army forces who are pushing toward the Islamic State stronghold of al Bab.

On Monday, Russia and China vetoed for the sixth time a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a seven-day ceasefire in Aleppo to allow humanitarian aid to move into the starving city, and to create more space for more talks on negotiating a withdrawal of rebel forces.

Also on Monday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that American diplomats are still open to working with the Russians, but it is hard to reach agreement. Russia, he said, is “very concerned” about the presence of the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front in Aleppo, while Washington is concerned about the daily bombardment of the civilian population of the city, along with the “moderate Syrian opposition that should not and does not deserve to be bombed into submission.”

The sparring between Russia and the United States over who is fighting terrorists — and which terrorists need to be fought — is hardly limited to Syria.

On Friday, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, told reporters at the Pentagon that Russia has lent legitimacy to the Taliban. Moscow’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, recently revealed that his government “have contacts with the Taliban,” and is working on a cease-fire. “The Taliban are fighting in Afghanistan against the people we fought in Syria, that’s why our interests coincide,” he said, referring to ISIS.

Nicholson blasted the outreach, saying, “this public legitimacy that Russia lends to the Taliban is not based on fact, but it is used as a way to essentially undermine the Afghan government and the NATO effort and bolster the belligerents. So, it’s not helpful.”

Guardian with additional report from Yahoo