DUBAI (Reuters) - Amnesty International warned on Wednesday that the executions of 12 Saudi Shi'ite Muslim prisoners could be imminent, after they were sent to a secretive state security body that reports directly to the king.
The men, who were sentenced to death in 2016 after being convicted of spying in a mass trial, have been transferred to the Presidency of State Security, the human rights group said.
They could be executed once the king ratifies their sentences.
"The families of the men are terrified by this development and the lack of information provided to them on the status of the cases of their loved ones," said Heba Morayef, Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa director.
"Given the secrecy surrounding Saudi Arabia's judicial proceedings, we fear that this development signals the imminent execution of the 12 men."
The Saudi government's communications office could not be reached for comment on the cases.
Riyadh's human rights record has been in the spotlight since the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its Istanbul consulate last month.
A Saudi delegation on Monday heard calls from Western countries at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva for the kingdom to abolish the death penalty.
According to Amnesty, the men were sentenced to death after being convicted of spying for Iran in an unfair mass trial of 32 people arrested across Saudi Arabia in 2013 and 2014.
Shi'ites have long complained of entrenched discrimination in majority-Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, a charge the authorities deny, and have periodically staged mass protests in the kingdom's eastern region where many of them live.
In January 2016, the kingdom executed prominent Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, one of the most vocal critics of the Al Saud royal family and a figurehead in the 2011 Arab Spring protests.
An absolute monarchy, Saudi Arabia bans political parties and public forms of protest and has sentenced members of a civil rights organisation who campaigned for a constitutional monarchy to decades in prison.
Dozens of intellectuals and clerics have been detained since last year in a crackdown on dissent, including a prominent economist since charged with joining a terrorist organisation and meeting with foreign diplomats.
Women's rights activists were arrested in May, just before the lifting of a ban on women driving, and were similarly branded as traitors and "agents of embassies" in state-backed media.
(Reporting by Dubai Newsroom; editing by Andrew Roche)