BEIRUT, Lebanon — A court in Saudi Arabia sentenced 15 men to death on Tuesday for spying on behalf of Iran, after a trial that a Western human rights organization characterized as a “travesty of justice.”
The sentences came as the sectarian and political rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is fueling conflicts across the Middle East, including in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Both Saudi Arabia, a Sunni majority country, and Iran, a country led by Shiite clerics, consider themselves the defenders of true Islam and have sought to undermine the other’s influence.
Fifteen other men received prison terms of six months to 25 years on similar charges. Two men were acquitted.
The 32 men on trial were mostly members of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority who were arrested beginning in 2013 and tried in Riyadh, the capital, in February. Two were foreigners; one Iranian received a prison term and one Afghan was acquitted.
Saudi news media reported that many of the men were former employees of the Saudi Defense and Interior Ministries, and the accused faced a variety of charges that included espionage, inciting sectarian strife and spreading the Shiite sect.
Shiites make up a small portion of the Saudi population and mostly live in the kingdom’s oil-rich east. Many accuse the government of discriminating against them, and some Shiite areas have held violent antigovernment protests.
Western human rights organizations criticized both the trial and the sentences, saying that the accused were denied proper legal representation, charged over activities that should not be crimes and pressed into signing “confessions” that were used against them.
In a statement on Tuesday, Amnesty International called the trial “a travesty of justice and a serious violation of human rights.”
There was no immediate comment from Iran.
It was unclear when the executions, which must be authorized by the king, would be carried out, but doing so would most likely further inflame tensions in the region.
In January, protesters in Iran stormed Saudi diplomatic missions after Saudi Arabia executed Nimr al-Nimr, an outspoken Shiite cleric and a Saudi citizen. Saudi Arabia responded by cutting off diplomatic relations, which remain severed.