September 3, 2009 / 3:25 PM / 10 years ago

Man on death row gets jail term for TV criticism

RIYADH (Reuters) - A Shi’ite who has been on death row in Saudi Arabia for 16 years for insulting the Prophet Mohammed was sentenced this week to another five years in jail for criticizing the Saudi justice system, an activist said.

The verdict issued on Monday punished Hadi al-Mutif for criticizing the justice system and the U.S.-allied absolute monarchy’s human rights record in comments he made from prison to U.S.-funded Alhurra television in 2007. Prisoners are often able to access mobile phones from visitors to Saudi jails.

“He said that he was a victim of sectarian segregation,” said Mohamed al-Askar, a leading Ismaili activist.

Mutif’s situation has become a rallying call for Ismailis, a minority within Shi’ism. Based in the Najran area bordering Yemen, the Ismailis say majority Sunnis are favored for jobs, housing and land and complain they cannot practice their rites openly.

Hamad al-Hoshan, a justice ministry spokesman, said he was not immediately able to comment about the case of Mutif, who has spent 16 of his 34 years in jail.

A report by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Thursday said sectarian tensions were at their sharpest in years in Saudi Arabia, which follows Wahhabism, a puritanical form of mainstream Sunni Islam. Many Wahhabis see Shi’ites as heretics.

“All the Saudi Shia want is for their government to respect their identity and treat them equally,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW Middle East and North Africa director, in a statement. “Yet Saudi authorities routinely treat these people with scorn and suspicion.”

The holy city of Medina saw clashes this year between Shi’ites and Sunni religious police, leading to protests in the Eastern Province where most Saudi Shi’ites live.

“The fact that they have not executed him for 16 years shows they are looking for a solution,” a Western diplomat in Riyadh said of Mutif’s case.

“It is not going to be easy for them, especially when you have some hardline Sunni clerics controlling courts,” he said.

“They must be coercive with clerics on this case because it has attracted a lot of international attention and there could be a political price even at home,” he said.

Last month King Abdullah ordered the release of 17 Ismailis jailed after clashes with police in 2000.

The king ordered a reform of the justice system two years ago, which if implemented would create an appeal court system and codify laws. Judges, who are Islamic legal scholars, have wide room for discretion in sentencing.

Reporting by Souhail Karam; Editing by Andrew Hammond and Mark Trevelyan

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