Saudis seek death penalty for top cleric

Salman al-Awda, a prominent Muslim cleric, has been critical of the Saudi government.
Salman al-Awda, a prominent Muslim cleric, has been critical of the Saudi government. PHOTO: NYTIMES

LONDON • Saudi Arabia's public prosecutor is seeking the death penalty for a prominent Muslim cleric who has criticised the way the monarchy is governed, the Saudi news media and the cleric's son said.

Salman al-Awda's trial opened on Tuesday at the Specialised Criminal Court in Riyadh, which often hears national security and terrorism cases. He is facing 37 charges, including stirring up public discord, going against the ruler and being active in the Muslim Brotherhood - all of which are considered crimes in Saudi Arabia.

The trial comes after a year-long crackdown by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that has seen dozens of clerics, activists, princes and businessmen arrested and detained on often vague charges.

Al-Awda, 62, has been a towering figure in the kingdom's religious sector for decades. In the 1990s, he was prominent in a movement of conservatives known as the Awakening that was associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and criticised the Saudi government on religious grounds, including for allowing US troops to enter the kingdom during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

He was jailed for five years for that, and his views evolved after his release. After the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, he called for elections and separation of powers, ideas the Saudi monarchy feared would threaten its control.

More recently, he has largely avoided commenting on politics in public, using his high public profile to focus more on spiritual matters. He has more than 14 million followers on Twitter.

Mr Adam Coogle, who researches Saudi Arabia for Human Rights Watch, said it was rare for prosecutors to seek the death penalty in similar cases. "I don't know how else you could see this but as a clear escalation against Saudi dissidents and activists," he said.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 06, 2018, with the headline 'Saudis seek death penalty for top cleric'. Print Edition | Subscribe