Saudi Arabia executed prominent Shi’a Muslim cleric Nimr Baqr Al-Nimr and 46 others, all of whom had been convicted of a range of offences that the Saudi court tied to alleged terrorist activities, according to a statement by the Minister of Interior.
Al-Nimr, 56, was a critic of the royal family and a protest leader. He was a central figure during the anti-government mass protests in the eastern province in 2011, where large groups of Shi’a citizens demanded greater rights in protest of their continued marginalisation.
Most of those executed were charged with belonging to terrorist cells and were arrested for allegedly being involved in a series of attacks carried out by al-Qaeda between 2003 and 2006.
Egyptian citizen Mohamed Fathi Abdel-Ati, who was arrested in 2003, was among those executed.
The list also includes people who were detained and convicted following Shi’a protests between 2011 and 2013, during which several police officers were killed in shootings and petrol bomb attacks. Al-Nimr was among this group.
The Saudi Minister of Interior’s statement said the 47 had been convicted of adopting the radical “takfiri” ideology, joining “terrorist organisations” and implementing various “criminal plots”.
Al-Nimr’ arrest after being shot by the police ignited days of unrest in 2012. He was accused of “foreign meddling in Saudi Arabia, disobeying its rulers and taking up arms against security forces”.
Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main rival in the region, warned Saudi Arabia against executing the cleric, following the confirmation of the death sentence against Al-Nimr in October 2014, and warning Saudi officials that Iran would respond to the cleric’s death.
“The execution of Sheikh Al-Nimr would leave Saudi Arabia with a price to pay,” deputy foreign minister Hussein Amir Abdollahian previously told Iranian news channel al-Alam.
Amnesty International condemned the execution ruling last year, describing the trial as “deeply flawed”.
“The death sentence against Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr is part of a campaign by the authorities in Saudi Arabia to crush all dissent, including those defending the rights of the Kingdom’s Shi’a Muslim community,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa
The Facebook group Free Sheikh Nimr Baqir Al-Nimr, which was formed in 2013, condemned the execution: “[Al-Nimr] was a peaceful human rights defender who was brutally and barbarically beheaded for freedom of expression after a deeply flawed trial,” the group said in a statement on the page.
“Instead of beginning the new year with mercy and humanity, Saudi Arabia has begun with the outrageous shedding of blood of Saudi’s most respected and senior scholar,” the statement continued.
Al-Nimr’s brother, Mohammed Al-Nimr, said that pro-democracy movement among Saudi Shi’a will continue.
“Wrong, misled and mistaken [are] those who think that the killing will keep us from our rightful demands,” Al-Nimr’s brother tweeted following the announcement of the execution.
The execution of Al-Nimr is expected to ignite a new wave of protests by the Shi’a minority in the Saudi kingdom and other Shi’a -majority countries in the region.
Hours after the execution announcement, protest broke out in Qatif district of Saudi Arabia’s eastern province. Scores of people marched in the streets, demonstrating against his execution.
The protesters reportedly chanted against the ruling family “down with the Al-Saud”, as they marched from al-Awamiya, Al-Nimr’s home village, to the region’s main town of Qatif.
Several dozen people in Bahrain staged a protest while carrying pictures of Al-Nimr. The Bahraini police fired teargas at the protesters. Meanwhile, protests have also broken out in the Shi’a -dominated areas of Kashmiri, with protestors holding portraits of the late cleric and singing chants against his execution.
Several countries and human rights organizations have issued statements deploring the execution of Al-Nimr.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Hossein Jaber Ansari, accused Saudi Arabia of executing opponents of terrorism.
“The Saudi government supports terrorists and takfiri [radical Sunni] extremists, while executing and suppressing critics inside the country,” Ansari told the Iranian state news agency.
Iranian cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami condemned the execution of Al-Nimr and predicted that it would bring down the Al-Saud dynasty.
“I have no doubt that this innocent blood will stain the clothes of the House of Saud and wipe them from the pages of history,” Khatami, who is a member of the Assembly of Experts, told the Mehr news agency.
The Supreme Islamic Shi’a Council in Lebanon described the execution as a “grave mistake” while Yemen’s Houthi movement said it was a “flagrant violation of human rights.”
The execution of Al-Nimr serves the interests ofthe Islamic State, according to Humam Hamoudi, a prominent Shi’a politician and member of the powerful Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) party.
“The execution of Sheikh Al-Nimr is a service to Daesh, which wants to expand through igniting sectarian wars,” Hamoudi said in a statement.
Khalaf Abdelsamad, who heads the parliamentary bloc of Iraq’s Shi’a Dawa party, said that Iraq should respond.
“Abdelsamad urges the Iraqi government to close down the Saudi embassy, expel the ambassador and execute all Saudi terrorists in Iraqi prisons,” a statement from his office read.
The Saudi Grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Alal-Sheikh, said in a statement however that the executions were just and aligned with Islamic law. He added that they serve the security of the Kingdom.
The execution comes days after several advocacy groups announced that at least 157 people were executed in 2015, with beheadings reaching their highest levels in 20 years.
Saturday’s mass execution is one of the largest carried out in the Saudi Arabian Kingdom, following major executions in 1980 when 63 persons were executed after seizing Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979.