Saudi Arabia executes 47 on terrorism charges – Qaeda ideologue, Shiite cleric among those executed

Saudi Interior Ministry's spokesman Mansur al-Turki gestures during a news conference at the Saudi Officers club in Riyadh, on January 2, 2016, following the execution of 47 people convicted of "terrorism", including a prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. AFP PHOTO / FAYEZ NURELDINE

Saudi Interior Ministry’s spokesman Mansur al-Turki gestures during a news conference at the Saudi Officers club in Riyadh, on January 2, 2016, following the execution of 47 people convicted of “terrorism”, including a prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. AFP PHOTO / FAYEZ NURELDINE

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shiite cleric and dozens of Al-Qaeda members yesterday, signalling it would not tolerate attacks, whether by Sunni jihadists or minority Shiites, and stirring sectarian anger across the region. Nimr Al-Nimr was executed along with 46 other men, including Shiite activists and Sunnis accused of involvement in Al-Qaeda killings, the interior ministry said. It prompted calls for demonstrations, but the brother of the 56-year-old cleric called for calm in oil-rich Eastern Province. “This action will spark anger of (Shiite) youths” in Saudi Arabia, but “we reject violence and clashing with authorities”, said Mohammed Al-Nimr.

The interior ministry said the 47 men had been convicted of adopting the radical “takfiri” ideology, joining “terrorist organizations” and implementing various “criminal plots”. A list published by the official SPA news agency included Sunnis convicted of involvement in Al-Qaeda attacks that killed Saudis and foreigners in 2003 and 2004. Some of them had been convicted of taking part in May 2003 attacks on expatriate compounds in Riyadh that killed 35 people, nine of them Americans, the ministry said.

Others were involved in attacks the following year on a housing complex in the eastern city of Khobar, in which 22 people were killed, most of them foreigners, and other assaults. Among them was Fares Al-Shuwail, described by Saudi media as Al-Qaeda’s top religious leader in the kingdom. Notably absent from the list, was Nimr’s nephew, Ali. He was arrested at the age of 17 and allegedly tortured during detention before being sentenced to die, sparking fury from rights watchdogs and the United States.

All those executed were Saudis, except for an Egyptian and a Chadian. Some were beheaded with a sword while others were shot by firing squad, said ministry spokesman Mansour Al-Turki. Executions have soared in the country since King Salman ascended the throne last January, with 153 people put to death in 2015, nearly twice as many as in 2014.

Saudi Arabia’s top cleric Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh said the executions were carried out in line with Islamic law and the need to safeguard the kingdom’s security. He described the executions as a “mercy to the prisoners” because it would save them from committing more evil acts and prevent chaos. Mustafa Alani, a security analyst close to the Interior Ministry, commented: “There is a huge popular pressure on the government to punish those people. It included all the leaders of Al-Qaeda, all the ones responsible for shedding blood. It sends a message.”

Analysts have speculated that the execution of the four Shiites was partly to demonstrate to Saudi Arabia’s majority Sunni Muslims that the government did not differentiate between political violence committed by members of the two sects. That point appeared to be bolstered by the state-affiliated Al Arabiya channel, which throughout yesterday showed graphics comparing Nimr and Shuwail, describing them both as “inciters”.

Yesterday’s executions were condemned by Iran and Iraq as well as the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, and drew protest calls. “The Saudi government supports terrorist movements and extremists, but confronts domestic critics with oppression and execution,” said Hossein Jaber Ansari, spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry. It will “pay a high price for following these policies,” the official IRNA news agency quoted him as saying. Turki described Iran’s reaction as “irresponsible”. “We are completely confident with what we’re doing and we believe in it and do not care how others view our procedures, whether on justice or implementation of sentences,” he said. Tehran ally Hezbollah denounced Nimr’s execution as a “heinous crime”. Saudi justice ministry spokesman Mansur Al-Qafari said “interference in the kingdom’s judiciary is unacceptable”.

Rights groups have repeatedly raised concern about the fairness of trials in Saudi Arabia, where murder, drug trafficking, armed robbery, rape and apostasy are all punishable by death. Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa director Philip Luther told AFP the kingdom was using “the guise of counter-terrorism” to clamp down on dissent. The trials “were politicized on the one hand and grossly unfair, because the international standards for fair trial were grossly flouted.”

Iran’s Basij student militia, connected to the country’s elite Revolutionary Guards, called for a demonstration yesterday outside the Saudi embassy in Tehran. In Saudi ally Bahrain, police used tear gas to disperse dozens of youths from the majority Shiite population protesting the executions. And prominent Iraqi Shiite lawmaker Khalaf Abdelsamad called for the closure of Riyadh’s embassy and urged the government to expel its ambassador. “The execution of Sheikh Al-Nimr will have serious consequences and bring about the end of the Al-Saud (royal family’s) rule,” his office said.

In Yemen, where the kingdom is leading a coalition against Shiite rebels, the religious scholars association controlled by them condemned the execution. Reactions will not be limited to “angry protests; they will turn into a sweeping revolution”, said the statement published on the rebels’ website. Nimr’s brother said he had hoped that “wisdom and a political solution” would prevail to spare the cleric’s life. And he warned that his execution could trigger “negative reactions” inside and outside Saudi Arabia. “But we hope for peaceful reactions”. The Bahraini government and the United Arab Emirates voiced support for the conservative kingdom, saying the executions were necessary to confront extremism.

Nimr was arrested in 2012, three years after calling for Eastern Province’s Shiite-populated Qatif and Al-Ihsaa governorates to be separated from Saudi Arabia and united with Bahrain. The interior ministry had described him at the time of his arrest as an “instigator of sedition”. A video on YouTube in 2012 showed Nimr making a speech celebrating the 2012 death of then-interior minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz. “Let the worms eat him,” Nimr had said, while also criticizing the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The anti-government protests that erupted in eastern Saudi Arabia five years ago coincided with a Shiite-led protest movement in Bahrain that was later crushed with help from Saudi troops. – Agencies

This article was published on 03/01/2016