Saudi Arabia sentences 14 to death for terrorism: lawyer

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia sentenced 14 people to death for terrorism on Wednesday after they were convicted of attacks on police in the Shi’ite Muslim minority area of Qatif in the Eastern Province, scene of past anti-government protests, their lawyer said.

Another nine people were given jail sentences of three to 15 years and one was acquitted, their defense lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous, told Reuters.

The sentences could further deepen resentment among the kingdom’s Shi’ites, some of whom already complaining of discrimination in the predominantly Western-allied Sunni Muslim country. Saudi Arabia denies any discrimination.

Arabiya TV said the charges had included opening fire on security forces and civilians, causing several deaths and destruction of property. They were also accused of peddling drugs and armed robbery against shops and cars.

The defense lawyer said he intended to appeal the rulings.

The 24 defendants -- most in their 20s -- had been held for about four years and accused of carrying weapons and shooting at police, he said. During 2011-14 protests, around 20 Shi’ites and several police officers were killed.

A spokesman for the Saudi justice ministry could not immediately be reached for a comment on the report, first broadcast by the Dubai-based al-Arabiya TV.

Some Saudi Shi’ites complain they suffer systematic discrimination in Saudi Arabia, whose majority follow a strict form of Sunni Islam that regards the minority sect as heretical. The government denies that.

On January 2 Saudi Arabia executed four Shi’ites convicted of similar crimes alongside 43 Sunnis accused of carrying out attacks for al Qaeda a decade ago.

The execution of the Shi’ites, including a prominent cleric, by Sunni-led Saudi Arabia pushed up tensions with its main regional rival Iran and contributed to rising sectarian anger in some neighboring countries.

International human rights groups have criticized Saudi Arabia’s justice system, which they say holds unfair trials, and have said that convictions for terrorism sometimes extend to peaceful protesters and are secured by torture.

Saudi Arabia denies this, saying its judiciary is independent and that it does not practice torture. It says it does not differentiate between Sunnis and Shi’ites accused of politically motivated attacks on other citizens or the security forces.

Reporting By Sami Aboudi, Sylvia Westall and Angus McDowall; Editing by Richard Balmforth