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RIYADH: Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shia cleric and a number of Al Qaeda members on Saturday, signalling it would not tolerate attacks by any group and stirring sectarian anger across the region.

Nimr al-Nimr, the most vocal critic of the Saudi royal family, had come to be seen as a leader of the younger Shia activists, who rejected the quiet approach of older community leaders in their struggle for political rights.

Four of those executed, including Nimr, were Shias accused of involvement in shooting policemen. But most of the 47 executed in the kingdom’s biggest mass execution for decades were Sunnis convicted of Al Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia a decade ago.

The executions took place in 12 cities across the country. In December, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula threatened to retaliate against Saudi Arabia for any execution of its members.

Iran and its Shia allies immediately reacted with vigorous condemnation of the execution of Nimr, threatening Saudi Arabia and its royal family with severe repercussions, in protests ranging as far afield as Pakistan and India.

However, the executions seemed mostly aimed at discouraging Saudis from jihadi activities after bombings and shootings by militants in Saudi Arabia over the past year killed dozens and the militant Islamic State group called on followers there to stage attacks.

The simultaneous execution of 47 people — 45 Saudis, one Egyptian and a man from Chad — was the biggest mass execution for security offences in Saudi Arabia since the 1980 killing of 63 rebels who seized the Grand Mosque in Makkah in 1979.

The Saudi interior ministry’s statement about the executions began with verses of the Holy Quran justifying the use of execution and state television showed footage of the aftermath of Al Qaeda attacks in the last decade.

Reacting to the execution of Nimr, Tehran said Riyadh would pay a “high price” for it.

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari said: “The Saudi government supports terrorist movements and extremists, but confronts domestic critics with oppression and execution... The Saudi government will pay a high price for following these policies.”

Iran also summoned Saudi Arabia’s charge d’affaires in Tehran in protest against the execution, state television said.

All seminaries in Iran will be closed on Sunday in protest against Nimr’s execution, with a demonstration expected in the Grand Mosque of Qom, the ISNA news agency said.

The Basij student militia connected to Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards called for a demonstration on Sunday afternoon in front of the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

Nimr’s execution also drew fire in Iraq, where the head of the Shia Dawa party’s parliamentary bloc urged Baghdad to close the Saudi embassy, expel the ambassador and “execute all Saudi terrorists in Iraqi prisons”.

Khalaf Abdelsamad also warned that the execution would have “serious consequences and bring about the end of the Al-Saud rule”.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and his predecessor Nuri al-Maliki both belong to the Dawa party.

In Lebanon, the powerful Shia movement Hezbollah accused Riyadh of “assassinating” Nimr. It accused Washington of “direct and moral responsibility for this crime” because of its long-standing alliance with Riyadh.

Amnesty International said it appeared the kingdom was “using execution to settle political scores”.

However, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, members of a Saudi-led coalition battling Iran-backed rebels in Yemen, praised the executions.

Published in Dawn, January 3rd, 2016