DUBAI (Reuters) - A Saudi court has sentenced 17 people, four of them women, to prison terms of up to 30 years in two separate cases, one of which involving an al Qaeda plot to attack U.S. soldiers in Qatar and Kuwait, the state news agency SPA said.
In a third case, two Saudi citizens were sentenced to death on Monday after they were convicted of attacking a police station with Molotov cocktails in Awamiya in the Eastern province, where many of the country’s Shi’ite Muslim minority live, defense lawyers and Saudi media said.
Sectarian tensions have plunged several neighbors of Saudi Arabia - notably Iraq and Syria - into complex, multi-sided wars drawing volunteer fighters from across the Europe and the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia.
U.S. forces based in conservative Sunni Muslim Gulf states are waging air strikes on radical Sunni Islamist insurgents who have seized large areas of Shi’ite-led Iraq and of Syria, whose government is backed by Shi’ite Iran.
The news agency SPA said the Riyadh specialist criminal court on Tuesday ruled that the 13 men - 11 Saudis, one Qatari and one Afghan - had used Saudi territory “to form a terrorist cell seeking to carry out a terrorist operation in the state of Qatar against American forces, supplying the cell with arms and money for that operation, recruiting people for that cell”.
The men were also convicted of “preparing to participate in a terrorist operation in the state of Kuwait targeting American forces there,” the agency said.
The accused leader of the group, a Qatari man, was sentenced to 30 years in jail, at the end of which he will be expelled from Saudi Arabia. The other 12 were jailed for between 18 months and 18 years, SPA said.
They were among a group of 41 people rounded up in 2011 on suspicion of forming a cell linked to the Sunni militant group al Qaeda, which planned to hit U.S. forces in Qatar and Kuwait.
On Wednesday, the court found four women guilty of supporting al Qaeda, adopting its ideology, training in the use of weapons and “preparing some of their children to travel to areas of conflict to fight,” SPA said. The four were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to 10 years in jail, it said.
Western-allied Saudi Arabia worries that its citizens may be drawn to fight in Iraq and Syria. It has issued a flurry of sentences against suspected militants in the past few weeks as top Saudi clerics and leaders have decried Islamic State.
But the kingdom has also cracked down hard on unrest in its Eastern province, which sits atop the kingdom’s vast oil reserves and is home to the Saudi Shi’ite minority.
On Monday, a court sentenced to death two men convicted of the police station assault and gave a third defendant 12 years in prison, SPA reported.
Defense lawyers said they intended to appeal against the sentences, arguing that the defendants had complained at the hearing that confessions were taken under duress.
The decision followed a death sentence on Oct. 15 for prominent Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who had called for greater rights for the kingdom’s Shi’ites and whose arrest in 2011 prompted deadly protests.
Reporting by Noah Browning and Omar Fahmy, editing by Sami Aboudi, Larry King