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Saudi sentences 15 to death for spying for Iran

15 people receive the death sentence after being convicted of espionage charges
Saudi Arabia executed Shia cleri Nimr al-Nimr in January, which led to an attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran (AFP)

A Saudi court sentenced 15 people to death on Tuesday after convicting them of spying for Saudi's long-time rival Iran, Saudi media reported.

They were among 32 people tried over the espionage allegations, Alriyadh newspaper said on its website. Two were acquitted while the rest received jail sentences of between six months and 25 years. 

Tehran swiftly denied the espionage charges and urged Saudi Arabia not to "seek to bring baseless accusations against Iran with the intention of political gains and increasing tensions in the region."

A source told AFP that most of the 15 Saudis were members of the kingdom's Shia minority. The most serious charge against them was high treason, while some of the defendants were also accused of meeting Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Prosecutors also claimed that the defendants had given away defence secrets and tried to commit sabotage, recruit moles in government departments and send coded information, and had supported "riots" in the Shia-dominated eastern district of Qatif. 

The defendants were arrested in 2013 and the trial started in February.

All of the defendants were Saudis, except for one Iranian and one Afghan. They are all in custody.

Tensions between the two countries escalated in January, when the Saudi embassy in Tehran was attacked, following the execution of prominent Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

Saudi Arabia announced that it was severing its diplomatic ties with Iran following the incident.

In May, Iran said its pilgrims would not attend the annual Muslim Hajj pilgrimage, blaming Saudi Arabia for "sabotage" and failing to guarantee the safety of pilgrims. Hundreds of Iranians were killed in a crush during last year's Hajj.