Saudi Arabia’s announcement Saturday that it had executed a prominent Shia cleric along with 46 other prisoners, including dozens of Al-Qaeda fighters, brought a swift reaction from the Middle East to Washington.
Angry demonstrators in Tehran stormed the Saudi Embassy early Sunday over the kingdom’s execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia leader who had rallied anti-government protests. Police broke up the protest, and the Iranian government called for calm.
Hundreds of Nimr’s supporters also protested his execution in his hometown in eastern Saudi Arabia, in neighboring Bahrain and as far away as northern India.
The U.S. government meanwhile expressed concern that the execution of Nimr could exacerbate sectarian tensions in the region.
“We reaffirm our calls on the government of Saudi Arabia to respect and protect human rights and to ensure fair and transparent judicial proceedings in all cases,” John Kirby, a U.S. State Department spokesman, said in a statement.
Saudi Arabia said the executions were part of a justified war on terrorism. Besides Nimr and three other Shias, most of those executed were Sunnis.
Dozens were Al-Qaeda detainees convicted of launching a spate of attacks against foreigners and security forces a decade ago. Nimr and the three others mentioned had been charged in connection with violence that led to the deaths of several protesters and police officers.
But Shia leaders in the Middle East condemned Riyadh and warned of backlash.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned the Saudi envoy in Tehran to protest, and parliament speaker Ali Larijani said the execution would prompt "a maelstrom" in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry later said it had summoned Iran's envoy to the kingdom to protest the critical Iranian reaction to the sheikh's execution, saying it represented "blatant interference" in its internal affairs.
Later, in the early hours of Sunday morning, Iranian protesters who had gathered outside the Saudi Embassy in Tehran to protest Nimr's execution broke into the building and lit fires inside before being cleared by police, the ISNA news agency reported. Images shared on social media appeared to show protesters smashing furniture in the embassy.
Subsequent images showed police in full riot gear guarding the premises as firefighters doused the building. ISNA said Tehran's police chief was on the scene to restore calm.
Nimr's execution could also antagonize the Shia-led government in Iraq, which has close relations with Tehran. The Saudi Embassy in Baghdad, which had been closed for nearly 25 years, was reopened on Friday.
In Lebanon, senior Shia cleric Abdul-Amir Kabalan described Nimr's execution as "a grave mistake that could have been avoided with a royal amnesty."
The sheikh's brother, Mohammed al-Nimr, told the Associated Press by telephone that the executions came as a "big shock" because "we thought the authorities could adopt a political approach to settle matters without bloodshed." He urged people to "adopt peaceful means when expressing their anger."
Nimr al-Nimr, who was in his 50s, never denied the political charges against him, but maintained he never carried weapons or called for violence.
At his trial, he was asked if he disapproved of the Al Saud ruling family because of speeches in which he spoke out forcefully against former Interior Minister and late Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdelaziz, who is King Salman's elder brother.
"If injustice stops against Shia in the east, then I can have a different opinion," the cleric responded, according to his brother, who attended court sessions and spoke to The Associated Press just days before the Oct. 2014 verdict.
Saudi Arabia's top cleric Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh defended the executions as in line with Islamic Shariah law. He described the executions as a "mercy to the prisoners" because it would save them from committing more evil acts and prevent chaos.
Saudi Arabia carries out most of its executions with beheadings. In a press conference Saturday, Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki said the executions were carried out inside prisons and not in public, as is sometimes the case. The Interior Ministry, which announced the names of all 47 people executed in a statement, said a royal court order was issued to implement the sentences after all appeals had been exhausted.
Meanwhile, the execution of Al-Qaeda fighters raised concerns over revenge attacks. The group's branch in Yemen, known as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, had threatened violence against Saudi security forces last month if they carried out executions of its fighters.
One of the executed was Faris al-Shuwail, a leading ideologue in Al-Qaeda’s Saudi branch who was arrested in 2004 during a crackdown on the group following the series of deadly attacks.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch's Middle East director, Sarah Leah, said "regardless of the crimes allegedly committed, executing prisoners in mass only further stains Saudi Arabia's troubling human rights record." She said Nimr was convicted in an "unfair" trial and that his execution "is only adding to the existing sectarian discord and unrest."
The cleric’s nephew, Ali, is also facing execution, but his name was not among those listed Saturday. He was 17 in February 2012 when he was arrested. He was later convicted, and his death sentenced upheld, on charges of attacking security forces and taking part in protests, among other charges.
Saudi Arabia carried out at least 157 executions in 2015, with beheadings reaching their highest level in the kingdom in two decades, according to human rights groups.