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Saudi Arabia seeks death penalty for preacher Awdah - activists, family

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Saudi Arabia seeks death penalty for preacher Awdah - activists, family

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RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's public prosecutor is seeking the death penalty against prominent Islamist preacher Salman al-Awdah on terrorism-related charges, activists and his family said on Tuesday.

The 37 charges against the 61-year-old cleric in the Specialized Criminal Court include spreading discord and incitement against the ruler, according to London-based Saudi rights group ALQST and other activists.

Awdah's son, Abdullah, confirmed the court proceedings and said the accusations against his father included critical tweets and establishing an organisation in Kuwait for defending the Prophet Mohammad.

Amnesty International's Saudi Arabia campaigner Dana Ahmed called the reports "a disturbing trend in the Kingdom (that) sends a horrifying message that peaceful dissent and expression may be met with the death penalty."

A government communications office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy where public protests and political parties are banned, has witnessed a crackdown on dissent, with dozens of clerics, intellectuals and activists arrested in the past year, even as the authorities enacted some high-profile social and economic reforms.

A roundup of senior royals, ministers and businessmen last November on charges of corruption sent shockwaves through the kingdom, stunning allies and foreign investors. Most of those detainees were released after reaching undisclosed financial settlements with the government.

Awdah, whom U.N. experts have described as a "reformist" and an influential religious figure who has urged greater respect for human rights within Sharia, was arrested in Sept. 2017.

He had previously criticised the government but more recently kept silent or failed to publicly back Saudi policies, including a rift with Qatar over supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Al Saud family has always regarded Islamist groups as the biggest internal threat to its rule over a country in which appeals to religious sentiment cannot be lightly dismissed and an al Qaeda campaign a decade ago killed hundreds.

In the 1990s, the Brotherhood-inspired Sahwa (Awakening) movement demanded political reforms that would have weakened the ruling family. Awdah, a Sahwa leader, was imprisoned from 1994-99 for agitating for political change. Criticism of the ruling family earned him praise from Osama bin Laden, whom he eventually denounced.

The Sahwa movement was later undermined by a mixture of repression and co-optation. Some clerics, however, maintained large followings through YouTube sermons. Awdah has 14 million Twitter followers.

In 2011, he called for elections and separation of powers, principles antithetical to strict Islamist ideology. He has since been largely quiet on issues of domestic reform.

The authorities recommended the death penalty last month for five human rights activists from the kingdom's Eastern Province, including Israa al-Ghomgham, the first woman to possibly face that punishment for rights-related work.

(Reporting By Stephen Kalin, Editing by William Maclean)

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