KUWAIT (Reuters) - A Kuwaiti appeals court on Thursday upheld the death sentence of a man convicted of spying for Iran as part of a cell which Kuwait said was trying to destabilize the Gulf Arab state on behalf of Tehran.
Iran has denied any links to the alleged cell. Kuwait and some other Gulf Arab countries, mostly ruled by Sunnis, have long accused Tehran of seeking to weaken them by infiltrating local Shi'ite communities and stirring up local politics.
The so-called "Abdali cell" was uncovered when security forces raided a farmhouse in Abdali outside Kuwait City last year and found a vast cache of guns and explosives.
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Kuwait charged 25 of its nationals – all of them Shi'ites – and an Iranian with spying for Iran and Lebanese Shi'ite Muslim group Hezbollah. Of those charged, 23 were found guilty of various crimes including intent to carry out "hostile acts" against Kuwait and possessing weapons.
Hassan Abdul Hadi Hajiya was sentenced to death in January along with the Iranian citizen charged in absentia. The ruling angered some Kuwaiti Shi'ites, with Shi'ite lawmakers boycotting a parliament session in protest.
Citing his "fugitive" status, the court gave no ruling on the Iranian defendant on Thursday. Iran has said Kuwaiti authorities have not contacted it regarding the Iranian suspect.
The court also ruled as "not guilty" ten defendants who had originally received 15-year prison terms and reduced the sentences of nine others or lessened them to fines.
Zaid Khalaf Anzi, the lawyer for the men whose sentences were reduced, told Reuters that the court had removed the charge of "collaborating with Iran and Hezbollah" but had maintained weapons charges.
Hezbollah is Lebanon's powerful Shi'ite militia.
Relations between Sunnis - who make up to 85 percent of Kuwait's 1.4 million citizens - and the minority Shi'ite community have been mostly amicable.
But the sectarian-tinged rivalry between its massive neighbors Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as an Islamic State suicide bombing on a Shi'ite mosque in June last year which killed 27 worshippers, have strained that harmony.
Last September, the Iranian embassy issued a rare statement expressing "deep dissatisfaction with the association of the name of Iran" with the case.
(Reporting By Mahmoud Harby and Ahmed Hegagy; Writing by Noah Browning; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)