One particular execution carried out by Saudi Arabia this weekend, that of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr, led to violent protests and the sacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
Sheikh Nimr was by no means alone on the chopping block. The Saudis executed a remarkable 47 prisoners on Saturday. Many of the others were members of al-Qaeda, leading Reuters to characterize the Kingdom’s intent as “signalling that it would not tolerate attacks, whether by Sunni jihadists or minority Shi’ites, and stirring sectarian anger across the region.”
Reuters adds that the executions “seemed mostly aimed at discouraging Saudis from jihadism after bombings and shootings by Sunni militants in Saudi Arabia over the past year killed dozens and Islamic State called on followers there to stage attacks.”
Saturday’s mass execution, conducted across 12 cities and involving a mixture of firing squads and beheadings, was the biggest held in Saudi Arabia in decades. The previous benchmark was the execution of 63 rebels in 1980.
All but two of Saturday’s slain prisoners were Saudis – the two exceptions hailing from Egypt and Chad – and while Shiite backlash over the death of Nimr has been making headines, the vast majority of the executions were of Sunni jihadists. In addition to Nimr, only three of the others killed were Shiites. All four of the Shiites were convicted of involvement in the killing of Saudi policemen during riots between 2011 and 2013.
The New York Times notes that lumping Nimr in with hard-core violent jihadists could backfire, both within Saudi Arabia’s Shiite community and across the Middle East.
CNN reports Amnesty International pronouncing the capital charges “vague” and his death sentence “appalling,” a matter of crushing dissent rather than pursuing justice or national security. U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby worried that executing Nimr “risks exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was “deeply dismayed” at the mass executions.
The Times of Israel reports that executions in Saudi Arabia hit a 20-year high in 2015, with 157 of them altogether. This represents a significant increase from the 90 known executions in 2014.
Many of these deaths were for non-violent offenses, such as drug-related crimes, where judges have discretion about the severity of the penalty, and previously tended to assign less severe punishments. It is noted that only 4 percent of executions were for drug-related offenses in 2010, but 40 percent of 2015’s executions were meted out for such crimes.
The Saudi execution spree prompted calls for retaliatory attacks from the Islamic State’s online supporters, although other critics said the beheadings made Saudi Arabia resemble ISIS, which is notoriously enthusiastic about decapitation (usually with a knife, which is much slower and bloodier than beheading with sword or axe) and also has a penchant for executing drug offenders.
More pushback came from the Iran-backed Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah, which called on the international community to “blacklist” Saudi Arabia for executing Nimr.
Shiite politicians in Iraq also expressed anger, with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi saying he was “shocked and saddened” by Nimr’s death.
Iran’s anger at this particular execution led Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossen Jaberi-Ansari to declare, “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.”
The New York Times reports that the Saudi Foreign Ministry summoned Iran’s ambassador give him “a statement of protest in severe language” because of Iran’s “aggressive” statements on the Nimr execution, and of course to complain about the damage to the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
The Times of Israel cites figures from Reprieve, an anti-death-penalty activist group, to note that Iran’s number of executions far surpasses Saudi Arabia, with over 1,000 prisoners put to death by the Iranian government in 2015.