Saudi Arabia carried out at least 157 executions in 2015, with the highest number of beheadings in two decades. The government then began the year 2016 by executing 47 more prisoners in what is looking to be an even more violent year.
Many are outraged the executions seem to target those who push for social reform. The 47 executed included Nimr al-Nimr, a dissident Shiite cleric who had pushed for social change and spoken out against the government and the Saudi royal family during the Arab Spring in 2011.
As a central figure in protests, his execution has sparked protests by many who claim Nimr’s execution was based solely on sectarian differences.
Shiite leaders, particularly in Iran, condemned the executions. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni theocracy that has deep-rooted differences with the Iranian Shiite theocracy — and the two often clash over these seemingly institutionalized differences. The people of Iran felt that these executions, specifically Sheik Nimr’s, are a great injustice.
A spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Hossein Jaberi-Ansari said, “It is clear that this barren and irresponsible policy will have consequences for those endorsing it and the Saudi government will have to pay for pursuing this policy.”
He continued to say, “The execution of a personality such as Sheikh Nimr who had no means other than speech to pursue his political and religious objectives only shows the depth of imprudence and irresponsibility.” Iranians, along with others, took to the streets today in protest.
Late Saturday, loud, passionate protests broke out at the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Iran. Protesters were seen throwing homemade firebombs into the embassy as well as throwing chairs and destroying records within the embassy.
Smoke was still rising from the building as media began to arrive. There were no Saudi diplomatic staff in the building at the time.
Shiites in the Middle East, more specifically in the Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, constantly claim discrimination at the hands of the Sunni majority. As Iran rose as a regional power, tensions heightened between Saudi Arabia and Iran — and between the Sunnis and Shiites of the region.
These tensions have resulted in what is being called a systematic crackdown on Shiites in Saudi Arabia by human rights advocates.
However, protests against the executions where not limited to the Shiites of Iran. In bordering Bahrain, the government feared protests would turn into an uprising and resorted to firming tear gas to dismantle the dozens of demonstrators.
All over the world, people protested what is being called an unjust execution.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson called on Saudi Arabia to respect human rights and peaceful dissent. Human rights group Amnesty International described the executions as a systematic approach to crush dissent amongst the kingdom’s Shiite minority.
Still, others referred to the incident as one that raises serious questions regarding the nation’s freedom of expression and respect of basic rights.
Amid anger, Nimr is being remembered as a respectable and peaceful man — the same man who, in 2011, told BBC that he favored protest over violence. He said he preferred “the roar of the word against authorities rather than weapons.”
Amid anger, people are honoring his memory and mourning his death. Amid anger, people are still hopeful for change in the treatment of minority dissent in Saudi Arabia.
Image: Screengrab from CNN Video