QATIF: Al-Awamiyah is a small village of shabby houses, narrow streets and dilapidated palm groves that has earned a big reputation as the center of unrest among Saudi Arabia's Shia Muslim minority.
In two years of persistent protests in Awamiyah and other parts of Qatif district on the Gulf coast, 17 people have died in unrest as Shia youths took to the streets demanding equal treatment from the Sunni Muslim-dominated government.
Big protests erupted in Qatif in early 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings sweeping the region and feelings of solidarity with Shias in neighboring Bahrain. These drew Qatif into a region-wide contest for influence between Shia Muslim Iran and Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia.
Most Saudis adhere to the rigid Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam that deems the Shia sect as heretical, and some members of the majority fear the Qatif Shias' first loyalty is to Iran rather than their own kingdom.
By contrast, the Shias proclaim their loyalty to Riyadh and say they want an end to what they regard as neglect amidst the oil wealth of Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province where they live.
Awamiyah became known across the country as Saudi media reported on what it simply called “rioting” in the village and the surrounding Qatif district.
After several months of relative calm, some residents fear more unrest resulting in a police crackdown. This follows the arrest of 16 Shias accused of spying for Iran and the first hearing in the trial of an Awamiyah cleric who may face execution.
“The government is dealing with this as a security threat, not as a political issue. Shia demands are not big. They are achievable and for not much cost,” said Jafar al-Shayeb, a Shia community leader and former elected head of Qatif municipality.
After the espionage arrests last month, 37 Shia religious leaders in the kingdom accused the government of raising sectarian tension to distract attention from small protests staged by some members of the Sunni majority.
On April 4 hundreds marched through the urban area of Qatif, activists' videos showed, demanding the release of Nimr al-Nimr, the cleric whose arrest in the summer of 2012 led to demonstrations in which three people died. The videos could not be independently verified.
“Two years ago the only demands were to release prisoners. Now the protests demand full equality. The more force the government uses, the bigger the demands grow,” said a Shia activist, who requested anonymity.
That view is not shared across Qatif, however, where there is a lively debate about the wisdom of demonstrating as opposed to working with the government to address issues of concern, and over the size of the protest movement itself.
“We have sectarian problems, we have to admit that. But most of these problems are from individuals, not the government,” said Nabih Ibrahim, who was Shayeb's deputy on the municipal council. “We try to solve the negative issues with dialogue.”
Arriving from Qatif, the road into Awamiyah passes the mosque of Sheikh Nimr where an extension made of corrugated iron protrudes from one side of the building and black Shia mourning flags flutter on another.
Officials describe Nimr as a leading figure among a small group of criminals and malcontents, inspired by Iran, who they say have carried out most of the unrest since 2011.
That description is challenged not only by younger and more radical Shia activists and Nimr's family, but also other members of the community who disagree with his political stand.
“Among the youth they see him as a symbol, a brave character calling for their rights and criticizing the government openly - even those who disagree with him,” said Shayeb, part of an older, more moderate group of Shia leaders who have distanced themselves from Nimr.
At Nimr's first hearing last week, the prosecutor demanded he face not only the death sentence, but an additional punishment mandated by sharia law for the most heinous offences in which the dead body is defiled by being hanged from a pole.
“The sheikh's thought is not extreme, it's just that he is very blunt when he expresses his opinions. But if describing things as they are is extremism, then that's a different matter,” said his brother, Mohammed al-Nimr, by telephone.
Of those killed in the past two years, 15 were Shias who the government said died in “exchanges of gunfire” with police. Local activists said some were unarmed protesters.
Local human rights activists and people detained during the unrest over the past two years have described being tortured while under arrest, including beatings, electrocution and sleep deprivation - charges the government strenuously denies.
“I was deprived of sleep and beaten with a cable. They said: 'admit the charges or we'll beat you',” said a 40-year-old from Awamiyah who was held in 2011, requesting anonymity.
The local Adala Center for Human Rights says 867 people had been detained in connection with unrest at some point in the past two years and 181 remain in prison. The government says a total of 278 were arrested, with 152 people still in detention.
Saudi authorities do not let foreign journalists go to Qatif independently and the visit there by Reuters was with government officials. Activists and former detainees were interviewed in Dammam, the capital of Eastern Province, without officials being present.