Saudi Arabia on Saturday executed a prominent Shiite cleric behind anti-government protests along with 46 other men, drawing angry condemnation from Iran and Iraq.
The execution of Nimr al-Nimr and the others, including Shiite activists and Sunnis accused of involvement in deadly al-Qaeda attacks, was announced by the Saudi interior ministry.
It prompted calls for demonstrations, with the brother of the 56-year-old cleric warning it could stir more trouble in oil-rich Eastern Province where Shiites complain of marginalization.
“This action will spark anger of (Shiite) youths” in Saudi Arabia, said Mohammed al-Nimr.
The interior ministry said the 47 men had been convicted of adopting the radical “takfiri” ideology, joining “terrorist organizations” and implementing various “criminal plots.”
A list published by the official Saudi Press Agency included Sunni Muslims convicted of involvement in al-Qaeda attacks that killed Saudi and foreigners in the kingdom in 2003 and 2004.
One of those executed was Fares al-Shuwail, described by Saudi media as al-Qaeda’s top religious leader in the kingdom. He was arrested in 2004.
Notably absent from the list, however, was Nimr’s nephew, Ali al-Nimr, whose arrest at the age of 17 and alleged torture during detention sparked condemnation from rights watchdogs and the United States.
All those executed were Saudis, except for an Egyptian and a Chadian.
Some were beheaded with a sword while others were executed by firing squad, said interior ministry spokesman Mansur al-Turki.
Executions have soared in the country since King Salman acceded the throne in January 2015, with 153 people, including convicted drug-traffickers, put to death last year, nearly twice as many as in 2014.
‘Oppression and execution’
Saturday’s executions drew condemnation from Shiite-majority Iran and Iraq, and calls for anti-Saudi protests.
“The Saudi government supports terrorist movements and extremists, but confronts domestic critics with oppression and execution,” said Hossein Jaber Ansari, spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry.
“The Saudi government will pay a high price for following these policies,” the official IRNA news agency quoted him as saying.
He said Nimr’s execution “merely shows the extent of irresponsibility and impudence.”
In Riyadh, Turki described Iran’s reaction as “irresponsible.”
“We are completely confident with what we’re doing and we believe in it and do not care how others view our procedures, whether on justice or implementation of sentences,” he told a news conference.
Justice ministry spokesman Mansur al-Qafari said “interference in the kingdom’s judiciary is unacceptable.”
Lebanon-based Shiite terror group Hezbollah also condemned the killing of al-Nimr, calling his execution an “assassination,” the Walla news website reported.
Rights groups have repeatedly raised concern about the fairness of trials in Saudi Arabia, where murder, drug trafficking, armed robbery, rape and apostasy are all punishable by death.
Iran’s Basij student militia connected to the country’s elite Revolutionary Guards called for a demonstration on Sunday afternoon outside the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
There were also reports of protests planned in Bahrain, a Sunni-ruled kingdom allied to Saudi Arabia where members of the Shiite majority have led an uprising.
In Iraq, prominent Shiite lawmaker Khalaf Abdelsamad called for the closure of Riyadh’s embassy and urged the government to expel the Saudi ambassador.
“The execution of Sheikh al-Nimr will have serious consequences and bring about the end of the Al-Saud (royal family’s) rule,” his office said.
Nimr’s brother said he was “surprised” when he heard of the execution, adding he hoped “wisdom and a political solution” would prevail.
“There will be negative reactions from within the kingdom and abroad. But we hope for peaceful reactions,” he added.
‘Instigator of sedition’
The cleric was arrested in 2012, three years after calling for Eastern Province’s Shiite-populated Qatif and Al-Ihsaa governorates to be separated from Saudi Arabia and united with Bahrain.
The interior ministry had described him at the time of his arrest as an “instigator of sedition.”
A video published on YouTube in 2012 showed Nimr making a speech celebrating the 2012 death of then-interior minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz.
“Let the worms eat him,” Nimr had said while also criticising the ruling Sunni families in both Saudi Arabia and neighboring Bahrain where the Shiite community has also complained of marginalization.
The anti-government protests that erupted in eastern Saudi Arabia five years ago had coincided with a Shiite-led protest movement in Bahrain that was later crushed with help from Saudi troops.
Also on Saturday, a Saudi-led coalition battling Iran-backed rebels in Yemen announced the end of a ceasefire that had been violated on a daily basis since it was declared last month.
Yemen is also home to al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula, which last month warned Saudi authorities against executing jihadists on death row.
© 1994-2016 Agence France-Presse
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report