Saudi embassy in Tehran stormed after Shi'ite cleric's execution

2016-01-03 07:44
Smoke rises as Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran, upset over the execution of a Shi'ite cleric in Saudi Arabia. (Mohammadreza Nadimi/ISNA, AP)

Smoke rises as Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran, upset over the execution of a Shi'ite cleric in Saudi Arabia. (Mohammadreza Nadimi/ISNA, AP)

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Tehran - Several demonstrators stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran and torched parts of the building early on Sunday, in reaction to the execution of a top Shi'ite cleric known for his activism against the Sunni government in Saudi Arabia.

"A group of angry Iranians" attacked the premises after the Saudi regime carried out a death sentence against Shi'ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, news agency Tasnim said.

Police clashed with demonstrators and several rioters were arrested before security forces brought the situation under control. Some reporters and photographers were arrested briefly in the chaos.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry temporarily banned all gatherings in front of the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the Saudi consulate in Mashhad.

"We understand the anger of citizens, but nevertheless they are not to assemble in front of any of the diplomatic missions of Saudi Arabia," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jaber Ansari said.

Executions

Saudi Arabia angered the region's Shi'ites after al-Nimr was executed along with 46 other people. An Interior Ministry spokesperson said they had been found guilty of adopting extremist ideologies, causing explosions and killing civilians and security officers.

Saudi sources said four of those executed were Shi'ite. The charges suggested the remainder were probably linked to the Sunni extremist group al-Qaeda.

Al-Nimr, 55, had been condemned to death in 2014 on charges of causing sectarian strife and disobeying the country's ruler.

Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional Shi'ite rival, called the execution politically and religiously motivated.

"Instead of focusing on [Islamic State] terrorists threatening the region and the whole world, the Saudis execute a prominent figure like al-Nimr," Ansari said, referring to the radical Sunni militia mainly active in Syria and Iraq.

The US government expressed concern that the execution could exacerbate sectarian tensions "at a time when they urgently need to be reduced".

In Iraq, religious authorities from the Sunni minority were among those condemning the execution.

Iraq's Dar al-Ifta, a key Sunni religious body, said it feared the execution "could cast the sons of the Islamic community into new internal conflict".

Iraq's Shi'ite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said opinions and peaceful opposition "are rights protected by divine and international law.

"Their violation will have repercussions for the security and stability of the region's peoples and their social fabric," he warned on Facebook.

Sectarian tensions

Saudi Arabia defended the executions, saying the Iranian comments were "irresponsible."

"When implementing court rulings, the kingdom does not pay attention to any threats or comments," Interior Ministry spokesperson Mansour al-Turki said.

Saudi Arabia's top state-appointed cleric, Abdel-Aziz al-Sheikh, also advocated the executions, saying they were "fair and aimed to boost security".

Al-Nimr, a Saudi national, repeatedly demanded increased rights for the Shi'ite minority, who make up some 15% of the Saudi population.

Toby Matthiesen, author of a recent book about Shi'ite dissent in the kingdom, wrote on Twitter that the execution of al-Nimr was "the first execution of a political (as opposed to a militant) dissident in decades in Saudi Arabia".

Chris Doyle, a commentator on Middle East affairs and director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said the execution was likely to exacerbate sectarian tensions in the region.

The execution of al-Nimr "won't help Saudi Arabia's image as an anti-Shia state, in the way that it treats the Shia, in the way that it has stoked up sectarian rhetoric," Doyle told dpa.

"Iran also stokes up sectarianism," he said, "the other way round."

Saudi Arabia's Shi'ites complain of discrimination, saying they often struggle to get senior government jobs and benefits available to other citizens.

The government denied the claims and said al-Nimr had followed "in the footsteps of the devil," the official Saudi Press Agency quoted an Interior Ministry statement.

"Through his terrorist acts, innocent blood was shed with the goal to shake stability in this country."

Federica Mogherini, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said al-Nimr's death had "the potential of inflaming further the sectarian tensions that already bring so much damage to the entire region, with dangerous consequences."

Al-Nimr's backers protested in Sunni-ruled Bahrain, which has a Shi'ite majority, with people chanting slogans against the Saudi and Bahraini governments and clashing with police, witnesses said.

Saudi Arabia is believed to have executed 137 people on various offences last year.

Beheading is a common method of execution in Saudi Arabia, which applies a strict interpretation of Islamic law. The country ranks among the top nations for carrying out the death penalty.

Read more on:    saudi arabia  |  iran

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