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Shiite cleric’s execution triggers fresh wave of protests

Atta Kenare, AFP |Tehran's police chief Hossein Sajedinia (C) asks protesters to end their rally against the execution of prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, and leave the area outside the Saudi embassy on January 3, 2016

Fresh protests erupted on Sunday in Iran, Lebanon, and Bahrain, a day after Saudi Arabia announced that it had executed prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, along with 46 others convicted on terror charges.


More than a thousand Iranian protesters gathered near the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, which was surrounded by anti-riot police to prevent another attack on the diplomatic compound. The Saudi mission was stormed by angry protesters late on Saturday evening, prompting Iranian authorities to call for calm.

Who was Nimr al-Nimr, the Shiite cleric executed by Saudi authorities?

“The authorities here are trying to calm down the situation (…) There have been 44 arrests and the president of Iran, Hassan Rohani, has said that while the killing of cleric Nimr was abhorrent, the actions that took place at the diplomatic mission of Saudi Arabia here in Iran were absolutely unjustifiable”, said Arthur MacMillan, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Iran.

Authorities had told demonstrators not to protest in front of the embassy and instead gather at a square in central Tehran. But the protesters chose to ignore them, and headed to the embassy to shout "Death to Al-Saud!". 

The same slogan was heard Sunday afternoon outside the Saudi embassy in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, where protesters gathered Sunday afternoon to condemn the execution. In a televised speech, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah described al-Nimr as a brave martyr and holy warrior, who didn't carry weapons or espouse armed conflict and was killed only for his criticism of the Al Saud ruling family.

Nasrallah said the Saudis could not take any criticism, and thus they executed al-Nimr in what amounts to a "serious crime" that "cannot be taken lightly".

The execution of al-Nimr also sparked Shiite anger in Bahrain, where hundreds of protesters took to the streets on Sitra Island, south of the capital Manama, before being pushed back by police. Witnesses said that violence erupted in several Shiite suburbs of the capital Manama, with police using tear gas and buckshot against protesters throwing petrol bombs.

Stoking sectarian strife across the region

Saudi Arabia's execution of a leading Shiite cleric reflects an assertive but risky new approach that threatens to escalate its proxy wars with arch-rival Iran in Syria and Yemen, experts said Sunday.

"Iran betted in the past on a hesitant foreign and domestic Saudi policy, but over the past year, things have completely changed and Riyadh has assumed a position that is rather provocative towards Tehran," said Mahjoob al-Zweiri, professor of Middle Eastern studies at Qatar University.

Nearly a year ago, King Salman succeeded his half-brother Abdullah as the monarch of the region's Sunni heavyweight. He brought along his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince and interior minister and his own young and ambitious son Mohammed as a deputy crown prince and defence minister.

Jane Kinninmont, of the Chatham House thinktank in London, said the execution "reflects a hard line on internal criticism and is not simply a reflection of regional politics" as Nimr was a "vocal and passionate critic of the royal family".

But she expected that his execution would "add to Saudi-Iranian polarisation".

"Iran is increasingly seeking to position itself as the defender of Shiite interests globally, and has a growing constituency as many Shiites feel beleaguered and victimised, especially with the rise of ISIS," she said, referring to the Islamic State group.

"Saudi authorities will see the Iranian response as an apparent validation of their perception that Iran is meddling in their domestic affairs."

Zweiri said he expected tensions over the execution to have far-reaching consequences.

"This tension might push Tehran towards more coordination with Russia to complicate the situation further in Syria," he said, referring to Moscow's military intervention in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

Tehran "might also aim to prolong the conflict in Yemen where it would aim to exhaust Saudi Arabia, particularly with the sharp drop in oil prices".

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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