Saudi Arabia executed 47 people on Saturday, including a prominent Shiite cleric behind anti-government protests and Sunnis convicted of involvement in deadly al Qaeda attacks, the government said.
The 56-year-old cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, was a driving force of the protests that broke out in 2011 in the Sunni-ruled kingdom’s east, where the Shiite minority complains of marginalisation.
Nimr’s execution was swiftly condemned by the Iranian foreign ministry who declared that Saudi Arabia “will pay a high price for executing Nimr al-Nimr”. Lebanon’s Supreme Islamic Shiite Council described Nimr’s killing as a “grave mistake”.
Announcing the executions, the Saudi interior ministry said the 47 had been convicted of adopting the radical “takfiri” ideology, joining “terrorist organisations” and implementing various “criminal plots”.
The list, published in a statement carried by the official SPA news agency, includes Sunnis convicted of involvement in al Qaeda attacks that killed Saudis and foreigners in the kingdom in 2003 and 2004.
All of the executed were Saudis, except for an Egyptian and citizen of Chad.
The list includes Fares al-Shuwail which Saudi media outlets have described as the top religious leader of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. He was arrested in August 2004.
They were executed Saturday in 12 Saudi cities, the ministry said, without elaborating.
Saudi executions are usually carried out by beheading with a sword.
‘Instigator of sedition’
At the time of his arrest in 2012, Nimr was described by the interior ministry as “an instigator of sedition”.
A video published on YouTube in 2012 showed Nimr, a slightly built man with a white beard, making a speech celebrating the 2012 death of then-interior minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, the crown prince’s father.
“Let the worms eat him,” Nimr said at the time.
“Those who killed our sons and jailed them, how would we not be happy for their deaths… May God take their lives one after the other, the families of Al-Saud and Al-Khalifa,” he said in reference to the Sunni ruling families of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Saudi Arabia’s Shiite-populated east has been the scene of periodic clashes involving security forces after demonstrations broke out almost five years ago alongside a Shiite-led protest movement in neighbouring Bahrain.
Most of Saudi Arabia’s Shiites live in the oil-rich east, where many say they are marginalised.
Executions have soared in the country since King Salman acceded the throne in January 2015, after the death of king Abdullah.
Last year, Saudi Arabia executed 153 people convicted of various crimes, including drug-trafficking, after 87 were put to death in 2014.
Authorities in the kingdom set up specialised courts in 2011 to try dozens of Saudis and foreigners accused of belonging to al Qaeda or of participating in the wave of attacks that swept the country from 2003.
Those shootings and bombings killed more than 150 Saudis and foreigners.
The kingdom’s current Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef oversaw a crackdown on the militants at the time.
In 2009, al Qaeda announced a merger of its Saudi and Yemeni branches forming al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — classified by the United States as the network’s deadliest branch.