DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - A high court in Saudi Arabia has upheld on appeal a guilty verdict and death sentence against a widely revered Shiite Muslim cleric who galvanized young activists with his outspoken criticism of the Sunni monarchy, his brother said Sunday.
Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was a central figure in Shiite protests that erupted in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring, and any decision to carry out his execution would likely spark new unrest among the OPEC powerhouse's Shiite minority.
He was found guilty of sedition and other charges in October last year in a case that highlighted the limits on free speech in the kingdom.
His brother Mohammed al-Nimr announced the latest ruling on his Twitter account. He told The Associated Press the family was informed of the decision by phone.
Saudi King Salman must still sign off on the sentence before it is carried out.
"We hope a royal pardon will be issued," Mohammed al-Nimr said. "This verdict could cause major trouble ... because my brother Sheikh al-Nimr is a prominent figure for Shiites, mainly in the Gulf."
Last year's verdict in the Specialized Criminal Court found al-Nimr guilty of a host of crimes including, among others, incitement of vandalism and sectarian strife, failing to obey or pledge allegiance to then-King Abdullah, calling for the collapse of the state and insulting relatives and companions of the Prophet Muhammad. The court was set up in 2008 to handle terrorism cases.
Executions in Saudi Arabia are frequently carried out by beheading. Al-Nimr's case attracted international attention after the prosecution unsuccessfully urged the court to have the cleric's body and severed head put on public display.
Al-Nimr has not denied political charges leveled against him but says he has never advocated violence.
His supporters and rights groups see the case against him and other government opponents as an effort to silence dissent, particularly among members of the Shiite minority, many of whom are concentrated in the oil-rich east.
Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia is embroiled in a sectarian-tinged rivalry with Shiite powerhouse Iran that is playing out in civil wars in Syria and Yemen, where the two countries support opposing sides. Riyadh is wary of what it sees as Iranian incitement among Shiites both at home and abroad, including in the neighboring Shiite majority but Sunni-ruled kingdom of Bahrain.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian was quick to criticize Sunday's ruling, saying "Saudi Arabia will face a heavy price for the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr," according to comments carried by Iran's semi-official ISNA news agency.
Al-Nimr's nephew, Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, who is the son of Mohammed al-Nimr, is one of three young Shiite activists arrested for taking part in anti-government demonstrations before they turned 18 who were also sentenced to death last year. Their case has also attracted international attention and appeals by rights groups to quash the verdict.
In the face of the outcry over the juvenile arrest verdicts, Saudi Arabia's embassy in London issued a statement earlier this month declaring the independence of its judiciary. It said the kingdom "rejects any form of interference in its internal affairs and any impingement on its sovereignty."