This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia • Saudi Arabia's execution Saturday of 47 prisoners, including an influential Shiite cleric, threatened to further damage Sunni-Shiite relations in a regional struggle playing out across the Middle East between the kingdom and its regional foe Iran.
Shiite leaders in Iran and other countries across the region swiftly condemned Riyadh and warned of sectarian backlash as Saudi Arabia insisted the executions were part of a justified war on terrorism. Also executed Saturday were al-Qaida detainees who were convicted of launching a spate of attacks against foreigners and security forces a decade ago.
In Tehran, a large crowd upset over the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr gathered outside the Saudi embassy and chanted anti-Saudi slogans. Some protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the embassy, setting off a fire in part of the building, Iran's top police official, Gen. Hossein Sajedinia, told the semi-official Tasnim news agency early Sunday.
Some of the protesters broke into the embassy and threw papers off the roof. 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.
Iranian politicians warned that the Saudi monarchy would pay a heavy price for the death of al-Nimr. The Iranian 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 the kingdom to protest the critical Iranian reaction to the sheikh's execution, saying it represented "blatant interference" in its internal affairs.
The cleric's execution could also complicate Saudi Arabia's relationship with the Shiite-led government in Iraq. The Saudi embassy in Baghdad reopened Friday for the first time in nearly 25 years. Already on Saturday there were public calls for Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to shut the embassy down again.
Al-Abadi tweeted Saturday night that 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's supporters also protested in his hometown of al-Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia, in neighboring Bahrain where police fired tear gas and bird shot, and as far away as northern India.
The sheikh's brother, Mohammed al-Nimr, said in a telephone interview that Saudi authorities told the family they had already buried the body but didn't tell them at which cemetery. The family had hoped to bury his body in his hometown. Instead the family planned 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."
State Department spokesman John Kirby said that the U.S. is "particularly concerned" that al-Nimr's execution risked "exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced." He said the U.S. is calling on Saudi Arabia to ensure fair judicial proceedings and permit peaceful expression of dissent while working with all community leaders to defuse tensions after the executions.
Al-Nimr's death comes 11 months after Saudi Arabia issued a sweeping counterterrorism law after Arab Spring protests shook the region in 2011 and toppled several longtime autocrats. The law codified that the kingdom could 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 Specialized Criminal Court, established in 2008 to try terrorism cases.
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 deployed that year to contain protests in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich east, where al-Nimr rallied youths who felt disenfranchised and persecuted.
A Saudi lawyer in the eastern region told The Associated Press that three other Shiite political detainees were also executed among the 47. The lawyer spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Advocacy organization Reprieve, which works against the death penalty worldwide, said two of the Shiites executed were teenagers when they were arrested. Reprieve said Ali al-Ribh was 18 years old and Mohammed al-Shuyokh 19 at the time of arrest in 2012. Both were convicted on charges related to anti-government protests held in eastern Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia says all those executed were convicted of acts of terrorism. 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.
Saudi Arabia's top cleric Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Sheikh defended the executions as in line with Islamic Shariah law. He described the executions as a "mercy to the prisoners" because it would save them from committing more evil acts. 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.
Because Saudi Arabia carries out most executions through beheading and sometimes in public, it has drawn comparisons to extremist groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State, which also carry out public beheadings and claim to be implementing Shariah. Saudi Arabia strongly rejects the comparisons and points out that it has a judicial appeals process with executions ultimately aimed at combating crime.
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."
The Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah issued a statement calling al-Nimr's execution an "assassination" and an "ugly crime." The group added that those who carry the "moral and direct responsibility for this crime are the United States and its allies who give direct protection to the Saudi regime."
In a news conference Saturday, Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki said the executions were carried out inside prisons and not in public, as is sometimes the case.