Saudi Arabia executed Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr along with 47 other prisoners on Saturday leading to strong condemnation from several Middle East countries including Iran. Saudi Arabia insisted the executions were part of a justified war on terrorism. Along with the cleric, Saudi Arabia executed several Al-Qaeda detainees convicted of launching a spate of attacks against foreigners and security forces a decade ago.
A large crowd gathered outside the Saudi embassy upset over the execution and chanted anti-Saudi slogans, some were spotted throwing stones and Molotov cocktails, according to police official, General Hossein Sajedinia. Some of the protesters broke into the embassy and threw papers off the roof, and police worked to disperse the crowd, Sajedinia told the semi-official ISNA news agency. He later told Tasnim that police had removed the protesters from the building and arrested some of them. He said the situation outside the embassy “had been defused.”
Al-Nimr’s execution promises to open a rancorous new chapter in the ongoing Sunni-Shiite power struggle playing out across the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia and Iran as the primary antagonists. The two regional powers already back opposing sides in civil wars in Yemen and in Syria. Saudi Arabia was also a vocal critic of the recent Iranian agreement with world powers that ends international economic sanctions in exchange for limits on the Iranian nuclear program.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry later said it had summoned Iran’s envoy to the kingdom to protest the critical Iranian reaction to the sheikh’s execution, saying it represented “blatant interference” in its internal affairs. The U.S. State Department issued a statement about the executions and Nimr al-Nimr.
We are particularly concerned that the execution of prominent Shia cleric and political activist Nimr al-Nimr risks exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced.”
The State Department added that the U.S. has issues with the legal process in Saudi Arabia and that the government there needs to respect human rights and conduct transparent judicial proceedings. Amnesty International, another human rights organization, decried the death sentences for al-Nimr and other Shiite activists in November, saying “Saudi Arabian authorities are using the guise of counterterrorism to settle political scores.”
The death of the al-Qaeda militants raises the prospect of revenge attacks. Al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate last month threatened violence if their sentences were carried out, AP reported. The executions took place in the capital, Riyadh, and 11 other cities and towns, according to the Saudi Arabian Interior Ministry. Saudi Arabia carried out 157 executions in 2015, all after King Salman assumed the throne in January. There were 90 executions in 2014.