Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Saudi Arabia Executes Dozens, Exacerbating Sectarian Tensions


We're going to start the program today with international news. In a few minutes, we'll find out why Turkey is in the middle of a construction boom for mosques and why Russians are foregoing their beloved overseas beach vacations. But we start with disturbing news from the Middle East. Earlier today, Saudi Arabia executed some 47 people, including a top Shia cleric and government critic, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. The U.S. State Department released a statement late Saturday saying they are "concerned that the executions risk exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced," unquote. NPR's Leila Fadel reports.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: In the largely Shia eastern city of Qatif, protesters filled the streets.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: (Chanting in foreign language).

FADEL: A video from a Shia activist in Qatif shows demonstrators pumping their fists in the air and chanting their support for Nimr.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting in foreign language).

FADEL: Later, in Nimr's hometown of Awamiya, citizens grieved. All four of the Shia men executed are from there. The town is dark, everyone's in black and recitation of the Quran fills the air. Shia Muslims are a minority in the Sunni Muslim country of Saudi Arabia. Sunnis and Shias are different sects of Islam. And the battle for influence in the region between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran has inflamed sectarian tensions.


FADEL: Protests also broke out in Bahrain. Pictures and videos show tear gas and burning tires in the streets while demonstrations also took place in other parts of the region. Saudi Arabia says the executions were to preserve the safety of the kingdom. Those executed were accused of radical ideology, terrorism or criminal plots. Besides the Shia Saudi citizens, a Saudi court convicted the 43 others on charges of working with al-Qaida. Adam Coogle is a Human Rights Watch researcher.

ADAM COOGLE: It's clear that the Saudi authorities are trying to send some sort of political message to Saudi society, whether it be, you know, don't be a jihadi, don't join a terrorist organization or, in the case of Nimr, don't got out and protest.

FADEL: He says Nimr's trial was flawed. He wasn't allowed a lawyer during his interrogation and for much of his trial. And some of the young Shia men executed or on death row say they were tortured and coerced into confessions of inciting violence. Iran reacted with anger. The foreign ministry spokesman told the Iranian Student News Agency that the Saudi government would pay. Similar condemnations rolled in from Shia clerics around the region. Human rights groups also condemned the execution. In Awamiyah, Nimr al-Nimr's brother, Mohammed (ph), grieved the loss.

MOHAMMED AL-NIMR: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: "It was a shock," he says. He called his brother's execution unjust and an assassination of a man who refused violence, sectarianism and demanded legitimate rights peacefully in a country where Shias say they're treated as second-class citizens.

AL-NIMR: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: He also called for self-control. He says the reaction to Nimr's death must follow the example of his brother's message of peaceful objection.

AL-NIMR: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: And he worries that his young son, Ali al-Nimr, will be next. He's on death row, arrested at 17 for taking part in protests. His father says he was tortured in detention and forced to confess to crimes he did not commit. There's been an international outcry over his death sentence. Today's mass execution is the largest in Saudi Arabia since 1980. Amnesty International says there's been a sharp uptick in executions since 2014.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Dubai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 1, 2016 at 10:00 PM MST
A previous Web summary of this story incorrectly said that Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was arrested in 2002. He was arrested in 2012.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.