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Saudi Arabia has drawn condemnation from Iran and its allies in the region for executing a prominent Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr (above), a vocal critic of the kingdom’s ruling royal family. He was one of 47 men put to death under accusations that included holding radical ideology and having joined terrorist organizations.

Saturday’s executions, which were the first of 2016, follow a year in which at least 157 people were put to death by the government, Saudi Arabia’s highest yearly total in two decades.

Hundreds of Shiite Muslims marched through the Qatif district of Saudi Arabia’s eastern province in protest over the execution of the cleric, according to an eyewitness. They chanted “Down with the Al Saud,” the name of the ruling Saudi royal family.

The Guardian reports:

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 yesterday 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 tear gas on the crowds, India, in Saudi’s Eastern Province and outside the Saudi embassy in London. Further demonstrations were being planned for Sunday in Lebanon and Tehran, where the majority of outrage is expected to be focussed.

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”. Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, said Saudi Arabia was profoundly wrong to have carried out the execution. “Amnesty International expressed serious concerns about the charges and his trial,” he said, “and we are opposed to the use of the death penalty in all circumstances.”

Iran, which had made frequent requests to the Saudis to pardon Nimr, responded with anger, saying Saudi Arabia will pay “a high price” for the execution. 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 Sunni extremists], but confronts domestic critics with oppression and execution … the Saudi government will pay a high price for following these policies,” he said, quoted by the official IRNA 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.” The former prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, said that he believed the execution would herald the downfall of the Gulf kingdom’s government.

Read more here.

SEE ALSO: Where’s the Outrage Over the Beheadings in Saudi Arabia?

— Posted by Roisin Davis

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