The Specialised Criminal Court in Riyadh sentenced 15 other defendants to prison terms ranging from six months to 25 years, and acquitted two of them, the Arabic-language al-Riyadh newspaper said on its website.
The defendants – comprising 30 Saudi Shi’ite Muslims, one Iranian and an Afghan – were detained in 2013 on charges of espionage for Iran and went on trial in February. Tuesday’s rulings are subject to appeal, and death sentences must go to the king for ratification.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi denied that any Iranian spying had occurred in Saudi Arabia. “Such accusations are baseless and serve political motives,” he was quoted as saying by the semi-official Tasnim news agency.
The trial was the first in recent memory in which Saudi citizens were accused of spying. It came at a time of increasing struggle between Saudi Arabia, the regional Sunni Muslim powerhouse, and Iran, a non-Arab Shi’ite theocracy, for influence in the Middle East.
In January, Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shi’ite cleric convicted of involvement in the killing of policemen, prompting protesters to storm the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. Riyadh then broke off diplomatic relations.