DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – There has been a spike in violence in an eastern town in Saudi Arabia, where masked security forces patrol the streets in armored cars and come under fire from local Shiite militants.
Concerns in the town of al-Awamiya intensified after the kingdom's supreme court recently upheld the death sentence for 14 Shiites from the area who participated in anti-government protests and were accused of violence against police.
Shiites from al-Awamiya complain of discrimination as a minority in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.
Here's a look at the impact of the unrest and the death sentences:
WHAT ACTIVISTS ARE SAYING
Human rights groups and activists from al-Awamiya say the 14 men, most in their 20s, could be executed at any moment if the king signs off on the sentence.
Reprieve, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch allege the men's trial was unfair, saying the defendants' confessions were extracted under duress and that some did not have lawyers present in court. Three of the defendants were 17 years old when the alleged crimes were committed.
Among those facing execution is a young Saudi man who had been accepted at Western Michigan University before his arrest. This led to calls from around the world for King Salman to halt the executions, including from 10 Nobel Peace Prize winners and the American Federation of Teachers .
Meanwhile, activists from al-Awamiya say that the demolition of homes that is underway there is an attempt to erase the Shiite town's history and expel residents. They say the homes being demolished were surrounded by a centuries-old walled fortress. People from the town say they are facing collective punishment.
THE GOVERNMENT'S RESPONSE
In response to the outcry over the death sentences, the Saudi Justice Ministry issued a rare statement defending its judicial process and the verdicts. It said all defendants in Saudi Arabia are entitled to fair trials. The ministry's spokesman, Mansour al-Qafari, said the 14 had been convicted of terrorist crimes, including the killing of civilians and security officers.
The spokesman said the death penalty, handed down by a counterterrorism court, was reviewed by an appeals court and the supreme court, with both upholding the verdict. He added that the death sentence is only carried out for "the most dangerous crimes."
Authorities describe armed militants in al-Awamiya as "terrorists" and say that parts of the town are being demolished because its narrow streets and alleys were being used by gunmen for cover. The government also says it is going to develop and rebuild the area so that the homes there comply with modern safety codes.
Security forces say militants have targeted police with rocket-propelled grenades and civilian demolition crews with improvised explosive devices.
The death sentences and violence in al-Awamiya threaten to further strain sectarian tensions in the region.
The execution last year of prominent Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who led protests in al-Awamiya, led to the severing of ties between the two rivals, the Sunni-ruled kingdom and the Shiite power Iran. The two are locked in a power struggle and back warring sides in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, as well as opposing groups in Lebanon and Bahrain.