by Ben Hubbard
New York Times
JAN. 2, 2016
Iranian protesters ransacked and set fire to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran on Saturday after Saudi Arabia executed an outspoken Shiite cleric who had criticized the kingdom’s treatment of its Shiite minority.
The cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, was among 47 men executed in Saudi Arabia on terrorism-related charges, drawing condemnation from Iran and its allies in the region, and sparking fears that sectarian tensions could rise across the Middle East.
The executions coincided with increased attacks in Saudi Arabia by the jihadists of the Islamic State and an escalating rivalry between the Sunni monarchy and Shiite Iran that is playing out in conflicts in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. Sheikh Nimr was an outspoken critic of the Saudi monarchy and was adopted as a symbolic leader by Shiite protesters in several Persian Gulf countries during the Arab Spring uprisings.
The execution of Sheikh Nimr is widely seen as part of the growing rivalry, and Shiite leaders in different countries — in Iran, in particular — condemned it.
“It is clear that this barren and irresponsible policy will have consequences for those endorsing it, and the Saudi government will have to pay for pursuing this policy,” said Hossein Jaberi-Ansari, a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry.
The state-run Saudi Press Agency reported late Saturday that the Saudi Foreign Ministry had summoned the Iranian ambassador to Riyadh to give him “a statement of protest in severe language” because of the “aggressive” statements made by Iran about the executions. The ministry called them “blatant interference in the kingdom’s affairs.”
The ministry also said it held Iran responsible for protecting the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, the Saudi Consulate in the city of Mashhad and their employees, the news agency reported, citing an unnamed Foreign Ministry official. Protesters tore down a flag from the Saudi Consulate in Mashhad on Saturday.
In Tehran, protesters broke furniture and smashed windows in an annex to the embassy, a witness who was reached by telephone said. The protesters also set fire to the room, said the witness, who would provide only his first name, Abolfazl, because he had been involved in the protest.
The protest turned violent after participants began throwing fire bombs at the embassy and then broke into the compound. The police arrived and cleared the embassy grounds of protesters and extinguished the fire, he said.
The semiofficial Iranian Students’ News Agency said the crowd had been chanting “Death to the Al Saud family,” which rules Saudi Arabia, before some protesters entered the embassy and threw papers from the roof. It did not mention the fire or destruction of embassy property. Pictures of a ransacked office and flames inside the building that matched the description of the scene by Abolfazl were widely circulated on social media.
The Iranian Students’ News Agency said that the protesters had been removed from the embassy, but that a large number remained outside amid a heavy security presence.
The executions in Saudi Arabia were the first of 2016 and followed a year in which at least 157 people were put to death, the Muslim kingdom’s highest yearly total in two decades.
In addition to Iran, criticism of Sheikh Nimr’s execution also came from Shiite politicians and clerics in Iraq, the Houthi rebel movement in Yemen and the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah. In Iraq, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi wrote on Twitter that he was “shocked” and “saddened” by his death. “Peaceful opposition is a fundamental right,” he wrote. “Repression does not last.”
Hundreds of Shiites took to the streets to protest in eastern Saudi Arabia and in Bahrain, witnesses said.
Saudi officials denied that sectarianism had played any role in the executions.
“This means that Saudi Arabia will not hesitate to punish all terrorists,” said Anwar Eshki, a retired major general in the Saudi Army who is the chairman of a research center in Jidda.
When asked about Sheikh Nimr, General Eshki replied, “In Saudi Arabia, there is no difference between the criminals.”
Most of those executed on Saturday had been convicted in connection with deadly attacks by Al Qaeda in the kingdom about a decade ago. Four, including Sheikh Nimr, were Shiites accused of violence against the police during protests.
In recent weeks, the Saudi government appeared to be preparing the public for the executions. Reports that they were imminent had appeared on Saudi news websites, and Al Arabiya, a Saudi-owned satellite channel, recently aired a multipart documentary that dramatized the kingdom’s fight against Al Qaeda.
On Saturday, some Saudis, including journalists at a government news conference, thanked officials for carrying out the death sentences. The top cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, called them a “mercy to the prisoners” because the executions would save them from committing more evil acts.
But some Western analysts said that executing Sheikh Nimr along with Qaeda militants conflated his outspoken activism with a grave national threat.
“This is indicative of the hard-line tilt the regime has taken,” said Frederic Wehrey, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has traveled in Shiite parts of Saudi Arabia.
Sheikh Nimr, said to be in his mid-50s, was from Awamiyah, a poor town surrounded by palm groves in eastern Saudi Arabia and known for opposition to the monarchy.
He studied in Iran and Syria, but rose to prominence for fiery sermons after his return in which he criticized the ruling family and called for Shiite empowerment, even suggesting that Shiites could secede from the kingdom.
This gained him a following mostly among young Shiites who felt discriminated against by Persian Gulf governments. When these young people joined Arab Spring protests in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia in 2011, Sheikh Nimr became a leading figure.
During a sermon in 2012, Sheikh Nimr mocked Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, who had been the Saudi interior minister and had recently died.
“He will be eaten by worms and suffer the torments of hell in the grave,” Sheikh Nimr said. “The man who made us live in fear and terror; shouldn’t we rejoice at his death?”
Prince Nayef’s son, Mohammed bin Nayef, is now the crown prince and runs the Interior Ministry, which carries out death sentences.
The Saudi authorities arrested Sheikh Nimr in July 2012, while the kingdom was leading a regional push to end the pro-democratic activism of the Arab Spring. These efforts included sending tanks to prop up the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain, which faced protests led by the country’s Shiite majority.
Shiites also protested in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, where many Shiites live and complain of discrimination.
Hundreds of people demonstrated in the province after video footage emerged of Sheikh Nimr’s arrest that showed him bleeding while in custody. The government said he had been wounded in a shootout. Sheikh Nimr faced charges including sedition and was sentenced to death in October 2014.
Despite his fiery tone, his supporters and others who followed his career said he had not called for violence.
“To lump this guy with terrorists is a stretch,” Mr. Wehrey said. “To my knowledge, he never called for armed insurrection.”
The executions came as Saudi Arabia sought to battle comparisons between its application of Shariah law and that of the Islamic State, the Sunni extremist group. Most of the executions on Saturday were by beheading; they were not public, unlike most Saudi executions.
On Saturday, an image was posted on the website of the supreme leader in Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, depicting what appeared to be an Islamic State fighter about to kill a hostage and a Saudi executioner with a sword, with the question “Any differences?”
Saudi officials say their government puts to death only people who have been convicted of grave crimes, unlike the Islamic State, which kills hostages and releases grisly videos.
But human rights groups have criticized the Saudi justice system for denying the accused access to legal counsel during interrogation and indicting suspects on vague charges like adopting extremist ideology or undermining state stability.
John Kirby, a State Department spokesman, said the United States government was concerned that Sheikh Nimr’s execution “risks exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced.”
“We reiterate the need for leaders throughout the region to redouble efforts aimed at de-escalating regional tensions,” he said in a statement.
The last mass execution of similar scale in Saudi Arabia was in 1980, when 63 jihadists were put to death after they seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
The executions of at least 157 people in 2015, a year that began with the inauguration of a new monarch, King Salman, were a sharp increase from the 90 people put to death in 2014. Saudi officials have said that the increase reflects a backlog of death sentences that had built up in the final years of the previous monarch, King Abdullah.