- Nimr al-Nimr arrested in 2012
- Majority convicted of al-Qaeda attacks 2003-06
- News “vigorously condemned” by regional rivals
- Protests held in Riyadh, Bahrain
News that a prominent Shi’ite Muslim cleric was among those killed in Saudi Arabia’s biggest mass execution for 35 years has met with a furious international reaction.
Most of the 47 executed were convicted of carrying out attacks on behalf of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia more than a decade ago.
However four, including Nimr al-Nimr, were Shi’ite Muslims accused of shooting police officers during more recent anti-government protests.
43 are described as Sunni jihadists. They include prominent al-Qaeda figures convicted of attacks on Western compounds, government buildings and diplomatic missions between 2003 and 2006.
The most severe form of punishment
The executions took place in 12 cities across Saudi Arabia. Firing squads were employed in four prisons, while the others were carried out via beheadings.
The bodies were then displayed in public places, the most severe form of punishment available under Sharia Islamic law.
Why were the executions carried out?
The 43 Sunni jihadists executed included several prominent al-Qaeda figures, some of whom were convicted of responsibility for attacks on Western compounds, government buildings and diplomatic missions between 2003-2006.
The four Shi’ites, including al-Nimr, were convicted of shooting and petrol bomb attacks which killed several police officers during anti-government protests in the Qatif district of Riyadh between 2011-2013.
Thousands of militant Islamists were detained after the 2003-06 al-Qaeda attacks. Hundreds have been convicted.
Hundreds of members of the Shi’ite minority were detained after the 2011-13 protests.
This is the biggest mass execution for security reasons in Saudi Arabia since 1980, when 83 jihadist rebels were executed for taking over Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979.
Commentators say a secondary aim is about discouraging Saudi nationals from engaging in jihadism.
Bombings and shootings by Sunni militants over the past year have killed dozens in the country.
In addition, ISIL has called on followers in Saudi Arabia to stage attacks.
Riyadh’s main regional rival Iran and its Shi’ite allies immediately reacted with vigorous condemnation.
A top Iranian cleric warned the kingdom’s Al Saud ruling family would be “wiped from the pages of history.”
Yemen’s Houthi group described Nimr as a “holy warrior”. Hezbollah in Lebanon said Riyadh had made “a grave mistake.”
There have already been protests in Riyadh’s Shi’ite district of Qatif.
However, al-Nimr’s brother says he hopes any response will be peaceful.