Published: Sunday 3rd January 2016 by The News Editor
Saudi Arabia’s execution of 47 prisoners including an influential Shiite cleric has sparked fears of a sectarian backlash and threatens to further damage Sunni-Shiite relations in the struggle playing out across the Middle East between the kingdom and its regional foe Iran.
Shiite leaders in Iran and other countries swiftly condemned Riyadh as Saudi Arabia insisted the executions were part of a justified war on terrorism.
Also executed on Saturday were al Qaida detainees convicted of launching a spate of attacks against foreigners and security forces a decade ago.
In Iran, a large crowd upset over the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr gathered outside the Saudi embassy in Tehran and chanted anti-Saudi slogans. Some hurled stones and Molotov cocktails at the embassy, setting off a fire in part of the building. Some broke into the embassy and were later removed by police.
Al-Nimr’s execution promises to open a rancorous new chapter in the Middle East Sunni-Shiite power struggle.
The sheikh, who was in his 50s, never denied the political charges against him, but maintained he never carried weapons or called for violence.
Saudi Arabia and Iran 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 programme.
Iranian politicians warned that the Saudi monarchy would pay a heavy price for the death of al-Nimr. The foreign ministry summoned the Saudi envoy in Tehran to protest and parliament speaker Ali Larijani said the execution would prompt “a maelstrom” in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi foreign ministry later said it had summoned Iran’s envoy to protest at the Iranian reaction to the execution, saying it represented “blatant interference” in its internal affairs.
The execution could also complicate Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the Shiite-led government in Iraq, where the Saudi embassy in Baghdad reopened for the first time in nearly 25 years on Friday.
Iraq’s prime minister Haidar al-Abadi said he was “shocked and saddened” by al-Nimr’s execution, adding that “peaceful opposition is a fundamental right. Repression does not last”.
Hundreds of al-Nimr supporters also protested in his home town of al-Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia, in neighbouring Bahrain where police fired tear gas and bird shot, and as far away as northern India.
The sheikh’s brother Mohammed al-Nimr said Saudi authorities told the family they had already buried the body, but did not tell them at which cemetery. The family had hoped to bury his body in his home town.
The family plans to hold prayers and accept condolences at the mosque in a village near al-Qatif, where the sheikh used to pray.
Germany’s foreign ministry said the cleric’s execution “strengthens our existing concerns about the growing tensions and the deepening rifts in the region”.
US State Department spokesman John Kirby said America was “particularly concerned” that al-Nimr’s execution risked “exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced”.
Al-Nimr’s death comes 11 months after Saudi Arabia issued a sweeping counter-terrorism law after Arab Spring protests shook the region in 2011 and toppled several long-time autocrats.
The law says the kingdom can prosecute as a terrorist anyone who demands reform, exposes corruption or otherwise engages in dissent or violence against the government.
The convictions of those executed Saturday were issued by Saudi Arabia’s Specialised Criminal Court, established in 2008 to try terror cases.
Saudi Arabia says all those executed were convicted of acts of terrorism and al-Nimr and the three others mentioned had been charged in connection with violence that led to the deaths of several protesters and police officers.
The kingdom’s top cleric Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Sheikh said the executions were in line with Islamic Shariah law and a “mercy to the prisoners” because it would save them from committing more evil acts and prevent chaos.
Islamic scholars around the world hold vastly different views on the application of the death penalty in Shariah law. Saudi Arabia’s judiciary adheres to one of the strictest interpretations, a Sunni Muslim ideology referred to as Wahhabism.
To counter Arab Spring rumblings that threatened to spill into eastern Saudi Arabia, the kingdom sent troops in 2011 to crush Shiite protests demanding more political powers from the Sunni-led, fraternal monarchy of Bahrain.
More security forces were also sent that year to contain protests in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich east, where al-Nimr rallied youth who felt disenfranchised and persecuted.
In Lebanon, senior Shiite cleric Abdul-Amir Kabalan described al-Nimr’s execution as “a grave mistake that could have been avoided with a royal amnesty”.
Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah issued a statement calling al-Nimr’s execution an “assassination” and a “ugly crime”. The group added that those who carried the “moral and direct responsibility for this crime are the United States and its allies who give direct protection to the Saudi regime”.
Meanwhile, the execution of al Qaida militants raised concerns over revenge attacks. The extremist group’s branch in Yemen, known as al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, last month threatened violence against Saudi security forces if they executed its fighters.
The executions took place in the Saudi capital Riyadh and 12 other cities and towns. Of those executed, 45 were Saudi citizens, one was from Chad and another was from Egypt.
Mohammed al-Nimr’s son Ali, the cleric’s nephew, is also facing execution, but his name was not among those listed on Saturday. He was 17 in February 2012 when he was arrested. He was later convicted, and his death sentence upheld, on charges including attacking security forces and taking part in protests.
Saudi Arabia carried out at least 157 executions in 2015, with beheadings reaching their highest level in the kingdom in 20 years, according to human rights groups.
Published: Sunday 3rd January 2016 by The News Editor