Saudi Arabia has put 32 people on trial, including 30 members of its own Shia Muslim minority, accused of spying for Iran, several local newspapers and television reported on Monday.
The 32, including an Iranian and an Afghan, were detained in 2013 sparking expressions of concern among Saudi Shias who said that several were well known figures in their community and not involved in politics.
The trial is the first in recent memory for Saudis accused of spying and may stoke tensions between local Shia and Sunni Muslims and with Iran, which strongly denied the accusations at the time.
The bitter rivalry between the Sunni-ruled kingdom and Iran, a Shia theocracy, has aggravated wars and political struggles in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain and is regarded by many analysts as a cause of regional instability.
Tensions escalated further in January when Riyadh broke off diplomatic ties following the storming of its Tehran embassy by protesters angered at Saudi Arabia's execution of a Shi'ite cleric convicted of involvement in the killing of policemen.
Riyadh's Bureau of Public Prosecution presented the charges against the 32 on Sunday at the Specialised Criminal Court, which tries security offences, the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya channel reported.
10 examples of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses
10 examples of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses
In October 2014, three lawyers, Dr Abdulrahman al-Subaihi, Bander al-Nogaithan and Abdulrahman al-Rumaih , were sentenced to up to eight years in prison for using Twitter to criticize the Ministry of Justice.
In March 2015, Yemen’s Sunni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was forced into exile after a Shia-led insurgency. A Saudi Arabia-led coalition has responded with air strikes in order to reinstate Mr Hadi. It has since been accused of committing war crimes in the country.
Women who supported the Women2Drive campaign, launched in 2011 to challenge the ban on women driving vehicles, faced harassment and intimidation by the authorities. The government warned that women drivers would face arrest.
Members of the Kingdom’s Shia minority, most of whom live in the oil-rich Eastern Province, continue to face discrimination that limits their access to government services and employment. Activists have received death sentences or long prison terms for their alleged participation in protests in 2011 and 2012.
All public gatherings are prohibited under an order issued by the Interior Ministry in 2011. Those defy the ban face arrest, prosecution and imprisonment on charges such as “inciting people against the authorities”.
In March 2014, the Interior Ministry stated that authorities had deported over 370,000 foreign migrants and that 18,000 others were in detention. Thousands of workers were returned to Somalia and other states where they were at risk of human rights abuses, with large numbers also returned to Yemen, in order to open more jobs to Saudi Arabians. Many migrants reported that prior to their deportation they had been packed into overcrowded makeshift detention facilities where they received little food and water and were abused by guards.
The Saudi Arabian authorities continue to deny access to independent human rights organisations like Amnesty International, and they have been known to take punitive action, including through the courts, against activists and family members of victims who contact Amnesty.
Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison for using his liberal blog to criticise Saudi Arabia’s clerics. He has already received 50 lashes, which have reportedly left him in poor health.
Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Dawood al-Marhoon was arrested aged 17 for participating in an anti-government protest. After refusing to spy on his fellow protestors, he was tortured and forced to sign a blank document that would later contain his ‘confession’. At Dawood’s trial, the prosecution requested death by crucifixion while refusing him a lawyer.
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr was arrested in 2012 aged either 16 or 17 for participating in protests during the Arab spring. His sentence includes beheading and crucifixion. The international community has spoken out against the punishment and has called on Saudi Arabia to stop. He is the nephew of a prominent government dissident.
The charges included establishing a spy ring with members of Iranian intelligence and passing them sensitive military information, seeking to sabotage Saudi economic interests, undermining community cohesion and inciting sectarian strife.
They also included supporting protests in the Shi'ite-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.
The 32 were also charged with owning banned books and other publications, al-Arabiya and other Saudi-owned media reported.
Among those arrested in 2013 were an elderly university professor, a paediatrician, a banker and two clerics. Most were from al-Ahsa, a mixed Shi'ite and Sunni region that is home to around half the members of the kingdom's minority sect.
Saudi Arabia has blamed sporadic unrest among Shi'ites in Qatif on Iran, but has never publicly presented evidence of a direct link between those who took part in protests from 2011-2013 and Tehran, which denies any involvement.
In 2012, it said the hacking that August of the computer network of state energy producer Saudi Arabian Oil Co (Saudi Aramco) had originated from servers in other countries and some analysts pointed the finger at Iran, which also denied that.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and non-Arab Iran soured after the latter's 1979 revolution that brought Shi'ite clerics to power. Saudi Arabia follows the rigid Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam in which Shi'ism is seen as heretical.
Shi'ites in Eastern Province say they face persistent discrimination affecting their ability to work, study and worship freely, charges Riyadh denies.