A Saudi Arabia court has handed down 15 death sentences for spying. The fifteen defendants found guilty of spying for Iran were amongst 32 that consisted of 30 members of the Shia Muslim minority of Saudi Arabia, one Iranian national and one Afghan, that went to trial during February.
Saudi prosecutors had accused the defendants of treason, putting together a spy ring through collaboration with the Iran intelligence and the passing of sensitive data regarding military zones.
Over the last year, tensions have escalated between Saudi Arabia, which is Sunni-ruled, and a Shia-ruled Iran.
Saudi Arabia ended its diplomatic relations in January with Iran after its embassy in Tehran had been stormed by Iranian protestors, who became angered when one of the country’s prominent clerics Saudi Shia Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr along with three others were executed.
Officials in Saudi Arabia insisted at that time that Nimr had been guilty of offenses related to terrorism, but the supreme leader of Iran said the cleric was executed only because he criticized the Sunni monarchy.
These two regional powers are also backing opposing sides in wars in both Yemen and Syria.
The 32 defendants that were tried in Riyadh, the country’s capital, during February, were believed to have been arrested during 2013.
At the beginning of the trial, reports were released that the defendants included a number of well-known Shia community figures who did not take part in politics, including an elderly professor at a local university, a banker, a pediatrician and two clerics.
However, a reporter for Arabiya TV, which is Saudi government owned, said Tuesday that the majority of defendants had been members of the military of Saudi Arabia.
Most had been from Eastern Province, which is home to most of the Shia who live in Saudi Arabia.
Several of the 32 defendants were handed prison sentences while two had been found not guilty said a report released by al-Arabiya.
Shia represent between 10% and 15% of the 28 million people living in the Kingdom and many say they suffer a systematic form of discrimination in the justice system, public educations, religious freedom and government employment.
Dissent in the kingdom is usually not tolerated and from 2011 to 2013, over 20 people have been killed by security forces, while hundreds more have been detained during Shia protests that call for an end to all discrimination.