His brother Mohammed had forecast it: The killing of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr would set Shiite Saudis alight. And that’s exactly what happened. Thousands took to the streets in the Eastern Province, in Qatif, furious over the death sentence of the famous religious man, and set fire to cars and buses as the army was deployed to protect government offices.
Al-Nimr was beheaded Saturday morning, along with 46 other prisoners, in 12 cities. A mass execution like this had not happened in 35 years. The last one was in 1980, when 63 coupmakers responsible for the occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, in a failed attempt to overthrow the Saud, were killed by the sabers of executioners.
The millennium has changed, but the petro-monarchy has not: Critics are silenced. Among the 47 prisoners, most were al-Qaeda (including the leader Faris al-Shuwail), but six protesters were Shiite. The most prominent figure was al-Nimr, 56, leader of the 2011 and 2012 protests, which were a reaction against the institutional, political and economic marginalization of the Shiite community (15 percent of the population).
He was killed for “terrorism” and equated with the al-Qaeda members arrested between 2003 and 2006, members of an organization that is widely tolerated in Yemen. He led the uprising demanding democratic reform and greater equality, without violence.
“Against the authorities [I prefer] the roar of the word,” he said in an interview with the BBC. “Words are more powerful than bullets.” He was arrested a year later, in 2012, and spent most of the last three years in solitary confinement. In 2014, he was sentenced to death after a trial that Amnesty International has denounced as full of irregularities and violations of the right to defense.
The anger of the discriminated Shiite minority exploded also in neighboring Bahrain. Demonstrations east of the capital Manama were attacked by the police, while in Iran, protesters assaulted the Saudi consulate in Mashhad and tore down its flag. A few hours before, the reaction in Tehran was immediate: It called for actions that would provoke conflict between the Sunni and Shiite axes.
“The execution of someone like Sheikh Nimr, who had no other means than the word to advance political and religious goals, shows the depth of [the Saudi] imprudence and irresponsibility,” said the Iranian Foreign Ministry. “The Saudi government supports terrorists and kills critics at home. It will pay a high price.”
The Houthi movements in Yemen and Iraq also condemned it. They had tried to persuade Riyadh to trade prisoners to save al-Nimr. Yesterday, Iraqi parliamentarians and members of the Badr organization appealed to Baghdad requesting the suspension of diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia (Riyadh has lately reopened the embassy in Iraq), while the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called on the Saudi and Gulf Shiites to take to the streets “as a deterrent to injustice and terrorism of the state.”
In the background are the Saudi objectives: to inflame tensions while trying to exit the Middle East crisis, widening the distances between its own weakened position and a Shiite axis strengthened by Iran’s role in Syria and Iraq. Tehran, however, cannot afford not to answer the gauntlet thrown down Saturday — some analysts wrote yesterday — by lowering the price of oil and bankrolling Saudi Shiites to push them back to the streets.
For now, al-Nimr’s 21-year-old nephew, Ali, remains alive. He was arrested at 17 for participating in the protests and was sentenced to beheading and crucifixion, a level of brutality that has raised outrage in the international community. The heated protests of human rights organizations echoed the hypocrisy of the West, which asked Riyadh to cancel the death sentence of the young man — accused of terrorism and throwing Molotov cocktails — while completely avoiding any real political and economic pressures that could actually bring about change.
The Saudis remain privileged partners of Europe and the U.S., which unofficially support the war in Yemen by selling weapons and providing intelligence. In 2013 (a year after the violent suppression of Shiite protests) Edward Snowden disclosed the expansion of cooperation between the N.S.A. and Saudi intelligence, not so much in the region as in the country: technical and analytical support (technology and training) to address the issues of internal security, and to improve the Saudis’ ability to identify specific individuals. This can only help in Riyadh’s suppression of every critical voice, facts that Washington knows well: In the same period, the State Department published a report in which it said the Saudi police systematically use torture against prisoners and conduct continuous surveillance of dissidents.
Saudi Arabia continues to violate human rights under the cover of immunity from its Western allies. The past year has been the most brutal of the past 20: 157 death sentences for murder, apostasy, adultery, drug dealing and various other supposed crimes. Often the condemned are executed publicly, an affront that serves as a warning to those who violate the law — and those who criticize the regime.