Saudi Arabia’s execution of prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr risks worsening sectarian tensions, the US has warned, joining a chorus of critics from the west and the Middle East who have condemned the killing.
Ahlul Bayt News Agency - Saudi Arabia’s execution of prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr risks worsening sectarian tensions, the US has warned, joining a chorus of critics from the west and the Middle East who have condemned the killing.
US state department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement that the US was “particularly concerned” that al-Nimr’s execution risked “exacerbating tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced.”
He said the US was 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.
The killing of Nimr, a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia’s ruling royal family, caused international outrage and a serious escalation of diplomatic tensions in the region, with unrest predicted in Shia-majority areas.
British politicians and the leaders of Iraq and Iran were among others who condemned the killing of Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shia cleric opposed to the Riyadh regime who was among 47 people executed on Saturday by the Saudi Arabian Wahhabi authorities.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Sunday politicians in the Saudi regime would face “divine retribution” for his death.
“The unjustly spilled blood of this oppressed martyr will no doubt soon show its effect and divine vengeance will befall Saudi politicians,” state TV reported Imam Khamenei as saying. It said he described the execution as a “political error”.
No information was released about the execution method used, but the country’s normal policy is to behead condemned prisoners with a sword.
The UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon also voiced his dismay over the execution of Nimr and called for calm and restraint.
Nimr, 56, promoted peaceful protest among his followers. He had been held since 2012, prompting a high-profile campaign for his release backed by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, and Amnesty International.
Yemen called the execution a flagrant violation of human rights and there was further criticism from Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. Lebanon’s Supreme Islamic Shia Council condemned Riyadh’s action as a grave mistake.
Protest rallies were held in Bahrain – where police used teargas on the crowds – as well as in India, in Saudi’s Eastern Province and outside the Saudi embassy in London. More demonstrations planned on Sunday in Lebanon and Tehran, where the majority of outrage was expected to be focused.
The cleric’s brother, Muhammad al-Nimr, whose son Ali is also a political prisoner, appealed for calm, saying the late ayatollah would have wanted only peaceful protests.
Iran had made frequent requests to the Saudis to pardon Nimr.
On Saturday, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Hossein Jaber Ansari, strongly attacked Saudi Arabia for ramping up sectarian tensions in the region.
“The Saudi government supports terrorist movements and takfiri [radical Salafi extremism], but confronts domestic critics with oppression and execution ... the Saudi regime will pay a high price for following these policies,” he was quoted as saying by the official Iran news agency.
“The execution of a figure like Sheikh al-Nimr, who had no means to follow his political and religious goals but through speaking out, merely shows the extent of irresponsibility and imprudence.”
Iran’s parliamentary chair, Ali Larijani, warned: “Nimr’s martyrdom will put Saudi Arabia in a maelstrom. Saudi will not pass through this maelstrom.”
In Shia majority Iraq, Haidar al-Abadi, the prime minister, expressed “intense shock” at the execution, which he said would “lead to nothing but more destruction”.
The former prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, said he believed the execution would herald the downfall of the Gulf kingdom’s government.
Maliki, referencing the killing of a prominent cleric in Iraq in 1980, said Iraqis “strongly condemn these detestable sectarian practices and affirm that the crime of executing Sheikh al-Nimr will topple the Saudi regime as the crime of executing the martyr al-Sadr did to Saddam Hussein”.
Hundreds of armoured vehicles were deployed in the eastern Saudi town where the execution took place and the surrounding province of Qatif on Saturday morning ahead of the announcement of the deaths. Local police were evacuated.
Hilary Benn, the British shadow foreign secretary, said Saudi Arabia was profoundly wrong to have carried out the execution. “We are opposed to the use of the death penalty in all circumstances,” he said.
Amnesty International on Saturday said that Nimr has been “executed to settle political scores”. Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa director, Philip Luther, told AFP that Nimr’s trial was both both politicised and “grossly unfair, because the international standards for fair trial were grossly flouted”.
He added: “What is going on is an attempt to silence criticism of Saudi Arabia, particularly among the Shiite activist community.”
Nimr had been a forthright voice in the anti-regime protests that erupted in Bahrain in early 2011, as a series of popular uprisings reverberated through autocracies from Libya to Yemen.
His support for Bahrain’s Shia majority and open dissent towards Riyadh was seen as a subversive threat by Saudi leaders, who feared his potential to stir revolt in Saudi’s Shia-dominated eastern province of al-Qatif.
Two of the largest rallies ever seen in the province were held in the past few months demonstrating support for Nimr and for a group of seven youth activists who were also imprisoned for taking part in pro-democracy demonstrations. On Saturday, it was revealed that three of them, arrested as teenagers, were among the 47 executed.
Like the family of Nimr, the relatives of Mohamed al-Sheuikh, Muhammad al-Suwamil and Ali Saeed al-Rebh were given no notice of the impending executions but had become increasingly concerned over the past month as phone calls and letters from the prisoners had been sharply curtailed.
However the name of Nimr’s nephew Ali al-Nimr, who has been sentenced, against international law, to crucifixion for taking part in anti-government protests aged 17 – and whose case was pushed by the Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in his first conference speech – was not on the list released by the authorities of those executed.
Ali’s father urged the reaction to Nimr’s death to remain peaceful even though he understood the escalation in outrage it provoked.
“We urge again to prevent any reaction outside the peaceful framework,” said Muhammad. “We took this stance from the very beginning, saying that we would not resort to violence even if Sheikh al-Nimr were executed. Sheikh Nimr enjoyed high esteem in his community and within Muslim society in general and no doubt there will be reaction. We hope that any reactions would be confined to a peaceful framework ... Enough bloodshed.”
Hassan Hassan, an author and Middle East analyst, said Saudi Arabia’s willingness to execute such a high-profile figure showed it was threatened by his popularity and not prepared to bow to pressure.
“Al-Nimr was a key mobiliser of young Shia in the kingdom and beyond. He called for standing against tyrants”.
“By executing him, Saudi Arabia is sending a message to outsiders and locals alike, that no matter what the world says, authorities will condemn and execute those who cross the red lines.”
He said the timing was significant, at a time when Riyadh was trying to consolidate its alliances in the wider region and to focus on who its enemies are. “It is important for Saudi Arabia to appease the population, show balance and demonstrate strength in a volatile regional landscape,” he added.
Human rights organisations have lashed out at Saudi Arabia for failing to address abuses and implementing repressive policies that stifle freedom of expression, association and assembly.
The executions come a day after reports by Amnesty International showed that Saudi Arabia had carried out 157 executions in 2015 – the most capital punishments conducted in a single year since 1995.
The 47 were convicted of adopting takfiri ideology, joining “terrorist organisations” and implementing various “criminal plots”, the Saudi statement claimed.
They were executed in 12 different cities but the official SPA news agency gave no details on the method used, though it is normally beheading with a sword.