Riyadh: Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shiite Muslim cleric alongside dozens of al-Qaeda members on Saturday, signalling intolerance of jihadism and minority Shiite Muslim violence and stirring a rise in sectarian tensions across the region.
Shi'ites condemn Saudi execution of cleric
Shi'ites around the world condemn the execution of Shi'ite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi Arabia.
Most of the 47 executed were convicted of al-Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia a decade ago, but four, including prominent cleric Nimr al-Nimr, were Shiite Muslims accused of shooting policemen during anti-government protests in recent years.
The execution of the top cleric drew warnings of a backlash against the ruling Al Saud family and threatened to further intensify a wave of sectarian conflict in the region.
Lebanon's Supreme Islamic Shiite Council called the execution of cleric Nimr al-Nimr a "grave mistake", and the Hezbollah group termed it an assassination.
Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, an establishment cleric in largely Shiite rival Iran, said repercussions against the Sunni Saudi rulers would "wipe them from the pages of history".
Scores of Shiites in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province marched through Nimr's home district of Qatif shouting "down with the Al Saud", and dozens more gathered in nearby Bahrain, a Sunni-ruled island kingdom allied to Saudi Arabia.
In Iran, a Shiite theocracy and rival to Saudi Arabia, state media channels carried non-stop coverage of clerics and secular officials eulogising Nimr and predicting the downfall of Saudi Arabia's Sunni ruling family.
Shiite leaders in Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Yemen also warned of reprisals, in a signal that sectarian conflicts across the Middle East could be further inflamed.
On a day where a Saudi-led coalition announced the end of a ceasefire in its war with Yemen's Houthi movement, the Houthis said Nimr had been afforded only a "mock trial".
The executions took place in 12 cities in Saudi Arabia, four prisons using firing squads and the others beheading. The bodies were then hanged from gibbets in the most severe form of punishment available under the kingdom's sharia.
The executions seemed mostly aimed at discouraging Saudis from jihadism after bombings and shootings by Sunni militants in Saudi Arabia over the past year killed dozens and Islamic State called on followers in the kingdom to stage attacks.
The simultaneous execution of 47 people on security grounds was the biggest mass execution for such offences in Saudi Arabia since the 1980 killing of 63 jihadist rebels who seized Mecca's Grand Mosque in 1979.
The 43 Sunni jihadists executed included several prominent al-Qaeda figures, including those convicted of responsibility for attacks on Western compounds, government buildings and diplomatic missions that killed hundreds from 2003 to 2006.
But the execution of four Shiites, including Nimr, who were convicted of shooting and petrol bomb attacks that killed several policemen during anti-government protests in Qatif district from 2011 to 2013, provoked an immediate response abroad.
Saudi police increased security in Qatif district of Eastern Province, residents said, a Shiite majority area and site of the protests from 2011 to 2013 in which several police were shot dead as well as more than 20 local demonstrators. Bahrain police fired tear gas at several dozen people protesting against the execution of Nimr, a witness said.
In a statement issued on state television and other official media, the Interior Ministry named the dead men and listed crimes that included both involvement in attacks and embracing jihadist ideology.
Mustafa Alani, a security analyst close to the Interior Ministry, commented: "There is a huge popular pressure on the government to punish those people. It included all the leaders of al-Qaeda, all the ones responsible for shedding blood. It sends a message."
Analysts have speculated the execution of the four Shiites was partly to demonstrate to Saudi Arabia's majority Sunni Muslims that the government did not differentiate between political violence committed by members of the two sects.
However, human rights groups have consistently attacked the kingdom's judicial process as unfair, pointing to accusations that confessions have been secured under torture and that defendants in court have been denied access to lawyers.
Riyadh denies practising torture, rejects criticism of its legal process and says its judiciary is independent.
The conservative Islamic kingdom, which usually executes people by public beheading, detained thousands of militant Islamists after al-Qaeda attacks between 2003 and 2006, and has convicted hundreds of them.
However, it also detained hundreds of members of its Shiite minority after protests from 2011 to 2013, during which several policemen were killed in shooting and petrol bomb attacks.
At least three other Shiites were executed alongside Nimr, including Ali al-Rubh, who relatives said was a juvenile at the time of the crime for which he was convicted, Mohammed al-Shayoukh and Mohammed Suwaymil.
Activists in the Shiite district of Qatif warned of possible protests in response to the executions. Nimr's brother, Mohammed al-Nimr, said he hoped any response would be peaceful.
"My mobile is getting non-stop messages from friends, all shocked and angry. We know four of the names on the list. The fear is for the children among those detained," said an activist in Qatif.
The Interior Ministry statement began with Koranic verses justifying the use of execution and state television showed footage of the aftermath of al-Qaeda attacks over the past decade. Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh appeared on television soon after to describe the executions as just.
The executions are Saudi Arabia's first in 2016. At least 157 people were put to death last year, an increase from the 90 people killed in 2014.