AWAMIYA, Saudi Arabia — This much is beyond dispute: Khalid al-Labad is dead.
Labad, 26, and two teenage relatives were fatally shot by police Sept. 26 as they sat in plastic chairs on the narrow sidewalk in front of their house in this broken-down little town in the far east of Saudi Arabia.
To police, Labad was a violent “menace” wanted for shooting two police officers, killing another man and attacking a police station. To human rights advocates, he was a peaceful protester silenced by the government for demanding equal rights for the country’s oppressed Shiite Muslim minority.
The killing of Labad and the two teens marks an escalation in Saudi Arabia’s worst civil unrest in years. The sectarian uprising in the kingdom’s oil heartland has been an often-overlooked front in the wave of revolts remaking the Middle East. But it has become increasingly violent, and the implications for the region are vast at a time when Saudi Arabia and Iran are jockeying hard for supremacy.
Saudi officials assert that the protesters are nothing more than Iranian puppets bent on destabilizing the Saudi economy — a charge the demonstrators vehemently deny.
Shiites, who form a majority in Iran, have long been treated as second-class citizens by the ruling Sunni elite in Saudi Arabia. They account for about 10 percent of the country’s 28 million people and are concentrated here in the Eastern Province’s industrial center, sandwiched between the vast Arabian desert and the glistening Persian Gulf.
The death toll here — 14 civilians and two police officers since the beginning of last year — is small compared with those in recent rebellions in other Arab countries, especially the civil war in Syria. And, unlike elsewhere, protesters here are not demanding the overthrow of their government. They want long-denied basic rights: equal access to jobs, religious freedom, the release of political prisoners.
But in a nation where even peaceful protests have long been banned, the clashes between police and demonstrators have become a big concern for King Abdullah and his ruling family.
“The government realizes it has a major problem here,” said Jafar al-Shayeb, chairman of the municipal council in Qatif, a Shiite-majority town close to Awamiya, near the oil wells and office complexes that constitute the hub of an oil industry that brought in $300 billion last year.
But the government’s response has largely been to dismiss the protests as illegitimate.
Mansour al-Turki, spokesman for the powerful Interior Ministry, said in an interview that the Saudi protesters “have connections to Hezbollah,” the Iran-backed Shiite militia in Lebanon. Such assertions infuriate supporters of the protesters.
“Show me one person here who has any connection to Iran. Where is the evidence? There is none,” said Waleed Sulais of the Adala Center for Human Rights, a group formed last year in Qatif to document abuses against Shiites.
The government has worked hard to play down the escalation in tensions between the Shiites and the Sunni-led government in these waterfront towns, just across a 16-mile causeway from Bahrain.
International and domestic human rights groups said the Saudi government has prevented them from entering Awamiya and Qatif, and government censors have occasionally blocked the Web sites of rights groups. Rights workers in Awamiya said a visit last week by a Washington Post reporter was the first by a foreign journalist permitted in many months.
In three days of interviews in private homes, street corners and government offices, protesters and security officials passionately accused each other of being liars and cold-blooded murderers.
“They lie. They lie a lot,” Yousef Ahmed al-Qahtani, Turki’s deputy, said of the protesters.
“Let me say this clearly and plainly: They’re lying. They’re lying. They’re lying,” Mohammed al-Nemer, 50, a local building contractor whose brother was shot and arrested in July, said of the security forces.
Awamiya is a shabby town filled with rutted roads where people scrape together a living fishing or working in small shops. Everyone entering the town must pass through police checkpoints, and police have blocked off main streets with armored vehicles. The town’s neglect stands in sharp contrast to the gleaming new malls of Damman, the province’s largest city, just 15 miles down the coast.
Last year, Abdullah announced a $130 billion national spending package widely seen as an insurance policy against the arrival of a Saudi Spring. The plan included wage increases for government workers, new rules to make mortgages easier to obtain, a huge expansion of unemployment benefits and plans for 500,000 new homes.
Although the plans were not aimed at Shiites specifically, people in this region benefited, and a housing project is planned for Qatif. Shayeb, the Shiite official, said the spending “helped divert people’s attention from revolt” but did not erase the underlying Shiite anger.
Shiites have demanded an end to discrimination in employment — few top-level government jobs go to Shiites. They want more freedom to build Shiite mosques and religious community centers, which are banned in many areas. They want more development in towns that appear run-down and neglected. And they want the release of Shiite political prisoners, many of whom have been held without charge or trial for months or years.
“If the government would answer some of these demands, people would calm down,” said Ahmed al-Meshaikhes of the Adala Center.
Instead, the Shiites have taken to the streets with new resolve.
Protests occur almost weekly, mainly on weekends. The marches can be a few dozen protesters carrying photos of the dead and shouting anti-government slogans, or hundreds of people taking over main boulevards, as they did after the recent funerals for Labad and the two teens.
The protesters, including fully veiled women, march down humid seaside streets in temperatures well over 100 degrees, carrying signs and chanting. They have also burned tires, tossed molotov cocktails and, both sides agree, sometimes shot at police.
At first, the Saudi government responded cautiously. In January, it issued a list of 23 most-wanted suspects, including Labad, and said it would give them time to turn themselves in. Only a handful did.
But more recently, both police and protesters appear to be turning more violent.
Officials from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International accuse the Saudi government of systematic human rights abuses in its treatment of the protesters. In a report issued in May, Amnesty said the government had committed “widespread human rights violations against individuals exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly.”
Amnesty concluded that Saudi security forces had arbitrarily detained protesters, held many without charge or trial, beaten and tortured some, and engaged in a “state policy” to have protesters fired from their jobs.
Government officials denied the allegations. Turki said security officials have handled the protests, which he calls “riots,” with professional restraint.
He said that Awamiya has typically seen much gun and drug crime, and that 32 officers have been shot since the protests began. Two of them have been killed.
“There are people who want to drive the police to clash with the public,” Turki said. “We try our best to avoid such provocations.”
Sulais said the police are simply obeying government orders to crush demands that the Sunni leaders would rather not hear. He said his group had documented the shooting of 71 protesters, including 14 killed. Since last year, he said, police have arrested 723 people, and 162 of them are still jailed, including 61 children as young as 14.
Each side accuses the other of inflating the figures, and no independent tally exists in a country where government records are not public.
The July 8 shooting and arrest of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, whose sermons had inspired the protesters, reflects the two views of reality in Awamiya.
Police said Nimr, 53, was arrested for speeches that incited violence and advocated the Eastern Province’s secession from Saudi Arabia. They said they shot Nimr only after a bodyguard fired at them.
His brother, Mohammed al-Nemer (who spells his last name differently), said Nimr never traveled with a bodyguard and didn’t own a gun. He said Nimr never incited violence or urged secession and is being held in solitary confinement in a prison in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
“He supported demonstrations, and he also demonstrated himself,” Nemer said. “Does that mean you should go and shoot him? Who is violent here?”
Hours after Nimr’s arrest, hundreds of people gathered in the streets of Awamiya to protest, with men at the front and women in the rear, in typical Saudi-style gender segregation, said Batoul Alawi al-Awami, 24, one of the protesters.
Awami said that armored vehicles then appeared and that police started shooting into the crowd, killing her husband, Sayed Akbar Ali Shakhoury. Police counter that both sides were shooting and that it was impossible to know who killed Shakhoury.
“All he did was demand our rights,” his widow said.
The killing of Labad and the two teens hangs over Awamiya. In Labad’s house, a warren of small rooms where several families live, more than 20 family members sat on the floor in a room beneath photos of Labad and Shiite religious leaders one recent night. They said Labad and his relatives were unarmed when police opened fire on them, and they were furious at assertions that the dead were criminals.
“We only come out to demand legitimate rights, and they call us terrorists,” said Labad’s sister, Ebtisam al-Labad, 30. “They are afraid of the truth. They don’t want people to speak. They want people to be like sheep.”
The next day, security officials made two wounded police officers available for interviews. One had been shot from behind in the leg, shattering his thigh bone, in March and is still on crutches. The other said he was driving four months ago when a man on a motorcycle pulled up next to his car and shot him three times. His right eye is gone, and his left arm is in a cast and sling.
Both officers said Labad had ambushed and shot them.
“They always say that. ‘That guy is a murderer. That guy is a criminal,’ ” said Sulais, the human rights activist. “They can say anything. But where is the evidence?”