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See Sectarianism comes back to bite Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia executes prominent Shiite cleric and 46 others in 12 cities

Prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr was among 47 people executed by Saudi Arabia on Saturday, triggering an angry response from across the Shiite world, including the kingdom's archenemy, Iran.

The official Saudi Press Agency listed Nimr's name among 47 people who were executed on Saturday morning in the capital Riyadh and 12 other cities. Some were beheaded, others were killed by firing squads, according to Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry.

Nimr, 56, was a key figure in the protests that erupted among Sunni Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority in 2011, inspired by the Arab spring revolts elsewhere in the region.

The execution risks stirring renewed unrest among Shiites in the kingdom, and drew an immediate harsh response from Iran, which has warned in the past that carrying out the death sentence on Nimr could cost Saudi Arabia dearly.

It could also ignite unrest in neighboring Bahrain, where widespread protests among the country's Shiite majority against the Sunni royal family were quelled by Saudi military intervention in 2011. Police in Bahrain fired tear gas to disperse several dozen people who took to the streets to protest the execution in a village west of the capital Manama, Reuters reported, citing eyewitnesses.

Iran's Foreign Ministry swiftly condemned the execution, calling it "the depth of imprudence and irresponsibility" on the part of the Saudi government.

"The Saudi government will pay a heavy price for adopting such policies," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

Nimr's brother, Mohammed al-Nimr, pledged on his Twitter account that the pro-democracy movement among Saudi Shiites will continue.

"Wrong, misled and mistaken (are) those who think that the killing will keep us from our rightful demands," he tweeted after the execution was announced.

Condemnations also began pouring in from Shiite figures and organizations around the region, with a prominent Iranian cleric predicting that repercussions of the execution would herald an end to the Saudi royal family.

"I have no doubt that this pure blood will stain the collar of the House of Saud and wipe them from the pages of history," Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a member of the Assembly of Experts and a Friday prayer leader, was quoted as saying by the Mehr news agency, according to Reuters.

In an angry statement, Lebanon's Hezbollah movement said it held the United States and its allies responsible for Nimr's execution, because they are "giving direct protection to the Saudi regime."

The execution "will destroy the Saudi dynasty's injustice," the statement said.

"This crime will remain a black mark that will plague the Saudi regime, which has been committing massacres since its inception."

In Iraq, there was an outpouring of anger from Shiite leaders and politicians, with the influential Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr calling on Shiites in Iraq and around the region to take to the streets to protest the execution. He told Iraqis to take their demonstrations to the newly re-opened Saudi embassy in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, which welcomed a new Saudi ambassador to Iraq only the day before for the first time in nearly 25 years.

Lebanon's Sumeria television later reported that Shiites were staging protests in the Shiite city of Karbala demanding that Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi close the Saudi embassy.

Yemen's Houthi rebels also denounced the execution on their website, and the Lebanese Supreme Shiite Council, the country's top Shiite religious authority, called it a "grave mistake."

Iran had earlier warned Saudi Arabia on several occasions not to go ahead with the death sentence, first handed down by a court in October 2014.

"Saudi Arabia will pay a heavy price for the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr," Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said after an appeals court upheld the sentence last October.

Leading Shiite figures around the world had also urged Saudi Arabia not to execute the cleric, including the widely influential Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who lives in the Iraqi city of Najaf, and the head of Lebanon's Hezbollah militia, Hassan Nasrallah.

State television also reported the executions, posting mugshots of all those who were executed while playing solemn music, the Associated Press reported.

Nimr was arrested by Saudi security forces in 2012, after being shot in the legs during a car chase in the mostly Shiite eastern province of Qatif, where the protests had been concentrated.

He had been charged with "instigating unrest and undermining the kingdom's security," as well as delivering speeches against the government and defending political prisoners.

His nephew, Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, was sentenced last year to death by crucifixion for participating in the protests while he was 16 or 17 years old, also drawing widespread international condemnation.

Saudi Arabia has carried out at least 157 beheadings in the past year, a record number according to human rights groups. Most of the 47 executed on Saturday had been convicted for participating in Al Qaeda related attacks in the past decade, the Associated Press said. Two were citizens of Egypt and Chad, and the rest were Saudi nationals.

[Source: By Liz Sly, The Washington Post, Beirut, 02Jan16]

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