News Middle East

Monday 23 April 2018

Saudis put cleric to sword

Shiite Iran and Hezbollah warn of repercussions after the Sunni regime executes a total of 47 prisoners

DEEPENING RELIGIOUS DIVIDE: A Bahraini woman in a silent protest against the execution of cleric Nimr al-Nimr (inset, right) by Saudi Arabia. The writing in Arabic reads: ‘Damn you.’ Photo: Mohammed al-Shaikh
DEEPENING RELIGIOUS DIVIDE: A Bahraini woman in a silent protest against the execution of cleric Nimr al-Nimr (inset, right) by Saudi Arabia. The writing in Arabic reads: ‘Damn you.’ Photo: Mohammed al-Shaikh
Nimr al-Nimr. Photo: Reuters

Louisa Loveluck

Saudi Arabia executed the prominent Shia Muslim cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr yesterday, stirring a chorus of condemnation and sectarian anger across the region.

Mr Nimr was killed alongside 46 others, including dozens of al-Qaeda members, in the country's biggest mass execution in three decades.

The cleric was a talismanic figure in protests that broke out in 2011 in the Sunni-ruled kingdom's east, where the Shia minority complains of marginalisation.

His arrest in July 2012 sparked days of protest.

Riyadh's main regional rival, Iran, and its Shia allies reacted with vigorous condemnation. Last night protests broke out in Tehran with angry protesters storming the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

Demonstrators broke into the embassy and started fires before being cleared away by the police. Iran's foreign ministry called for calm after police dispersed protesters.

In Saudi Arabia, hundreds of Shias marched through Mr Nimr's home district of Qatif, chanting "down with the Al Saud", a reference to the Saudi ruling family.

Protests also took place in Pakistan, India and Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Hossein Jaber Ansari, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, accused Riyadh of hypocrisy.

"The Saudi government supports terrorist movements and extremists, but confronts domestic critics with oppression and execution," he said.

Lebanon's Supreme Islamic Shia Council called the execution a "grave mistake", while Haider al-Abadi, Iraq's prime minister, said it would have repercussions on regional security.

A German foreign ministry official condemned the execution, saying it deepened worries about the region.

Britain's shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, joined the condemnation, describing the execution as "profoundly wrong". The US said it was concerned the execution "risks exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced".

The executions took place in 12 cities in Saudi Arabia, with four prisons using firing squads and the others carrying out beheadings.

Describing the executions as acts of "mercy" to prisoners who might have committed crimes on their release, Saudi Arabia's leading cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, said they were carried out in line with Islamic law and the need to safeguard the kingdom's security.

The list of people executed included Sunnis convicted of involvement in al-Qaeda bombings and shootings that killed Saudis and foreigners in the kingdom in 2003 and 2004. Among those executed was a man convicted of involvement in a gun attack that killed Simon Cumbers, a cameraman on an assignment for the BBC, in 2004.

Notably absent from the list was Mr 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 US.

Saudi allies offered their support. In the UAE, the foreign minister, called the executions a "clear message against terrorism".

Bahrain, which has faced unrest from its Shia majority population, also backed Riyadh in "all deterrent and needed measures it takes to confront violent extremism".

In comments on Twitter, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, compared Saudi Arabia with Isil, which has also become renowned for its mass executions.

Iranian state media showed rolling coverage of clerics and secular officials eulogising Mr Nimr and predicting the downfall of Saudi Arabia's ruling family. Iran's seminaries are due to be closed today in protest at his execution.

In 2009, Mr Nimr angered authorities by calling for two Shia-populated governorates to be separated from Saudi Arabia and united with neighbouring Shia-majority Bahrain. Earlier in 2008, Mr Nimr met US officials, seeking to distance himself from anti-US and pro-Iranian statements

When Saudi security forces arrested Mr Nimr in 2012, he was shot in the thigh, provoking protest at the treatment of a cleric who enjoyed hero status in the eyes of many. The charges included "disobeying the ruler" and "encouraging, leading and participating in demonstrations".

Supporters said the cleric eschewed violence. He once urged protesters to resist police bullets with "the roar of the word".

But he also warned Saudi authorities that if they refused to "stop bloodshed", they risked being overthrown.

Experts said the cleric's execution revealed anxiety on the part of a Saudi state more willing to weather criticism over his death than to release him and bear the consequences.

© Telegraph

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