Verdict postponed on Saudi Shiite cleric

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A court in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday postponed issuing its verdict in a sensitive case against a popular Shiite cleric who faces charges that carry the death sentence.

Sheik Nimr al-Nimr's brother told The Associated Press that the verdict was delayed until Oct. 15. Mohammed al-Nimr had originally given the AP a different date based on the Islamic calendar.

He said that for the first time since his brother's arrest in July 2012, security officials barred the sheik from attending Tuesday's court session.

The prosecution is asking that al-Nimr be executed and crucified. In Saudi Arabia, most death sentences are carried out by beheading. Crucifixion in this context would mean that the body and head would then be put on display.

Such a punishment is rare in the kingdom and reserved for only the most serious crimes. It is meant as a warning to others.

The 54-year-old cleric is a longtime critic of Saudi Arabia's treatment of its Shiite minority and is revered among many young Shiites. He led Shiite protests in 2011 in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province and openly criticized the Sunni government of Bahrain's handling of Shiite protests there.

Shiite activists say the decision to delay the verdict suggests the government is aware that a harsh verdict against al-Nimr could spark unrest and renewed protests in the Eastern Province. Protests are banned in Saudi Arabia, where the vast majority of people are Sunni Muslims and where many ultraconservatives view Shiites as heretics.

"We see this decision by the court through a positive lens and hope for a political solution rather than a security solution (to Shiite demands)," al-Nimr's brother Mohammed said.

Al-Nimr faces charges that include disobeying the ruler, firing on security forces, sowing discord, undermining national unity, interfering in the affairs of a sisterly nation and inciting protests. He was shot in the leg when he was arrested.

Al-Nimr does not deny the political charges against him, but denies ever carrying weapons or calling for violence.

He is being tried by the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh, which was created in 2008 to try terrorism cases but has also been used against rights activists.

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