The U.S. chief religious freedom watchdog condemned Saudi Arabia’s Jan. 2 execution of a Shi’a Muslim cleric as a violation of religious freedom, and called for global respect for human rights.

“Sheik al-Nimr's execution blatantly disregards the right to dissent and the right to religious freedom of Shi'a Muslims in the country and, as our State Department has noted and events tragically have documented, contributes to sectarian discord both within Saudi Arabia and in the region,” Robert P. George, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), stated on Tuesday. 

George called on Saudi Arabia “to honor international standards of justice and ensure the religious freedom and equal protection rights of everyone in the Kingdom, including its Shi'a Muslim citizens.”

Tensions in the region escalated quickly after Saudi Arabia’s mass execution of 47 men on Jan. 2 included Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a Shi’a cleric and long-time activist for Shi’a rights in the kingdom who has been a public critic of the government. 

Al-Nimr was convicted in 2012 by the non-Sharia Specialized Criminal Court on various charges including “inciting sectarian strife” and civil disobedience, according to USCIRF’s 2015 annual report. The court was created in 2008 to try terrorism offences, but it has increasingly been used to convict dissidents without a proper trial, USCIRF noted. 

In response, outraged Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran and torched the building. Saudi Arabia responded by severing diplomatic ties with Iran on Jan. 4, and Bahrain, Djibouti, and the Sudan followed suit. Kuwait recalled its ambassador to Iran.

“Sheikh al-Nimr's trial and his execution raise serious due process and religious freedom concerns,” George stated, calling the charges “vague and questionable” and saying they did not meet the standards for capital punishment set by international human rights law.

The U.S. State Department responded to the execution by calling for greater respect for human rights. “We are particularly concerned that the execution of prominent Shia cleric and political activist Nimr al-Nimr risks exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced,” said Jon Kirby, spokesperson for the Bureau of Public Affairs, in a Jan. 2 statement. 

Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a Muslim minority suffers various repressions of religious freedom — they are largely prohibited from building mosques and have been imprisoned by the government for calling for reform or even practicing their religion at home, according to USCIRF. “The Shi'a community also faces discrimination in education, employment, the military, political representation, and the judiciary,” the commission noted. 

Non-Muslim religions cannot build churches or public houses of worship in Saudi Arabia, and the government cracks down on blasphemy, sorcery, dissent, and apostasy, even treating acts of atheism and blasphemy as terrorism. 

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reaffirmed its recommendation that Saudi Arabia be designated as a “country of particular concern” for its serious and ongoing violations of religious freedom. The State Department’s “Country of Particular Concern” list recognizes nations’ poor human rights records regarding religious freedom, and actions can be taken against such countries, including economic sanctions or a bilateral agreement. 

Although Saudi Arabia is currently on the CPC list, a waiver has prevented the mandated action against them from taking place since 2006.