CAIRO - Saudi Arabia has carried out its largest mass execution in more than three decades, putting to death 47 people convicted of terrorism, including a prominent Shi'ite cleric.
Most of those put to death were alleged Sunni militants, and some had ties to al-Qaida, according to media outlets. All but two were Saudi; one was Chadian and the other Egyptian.
The cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was a key figure in Shi'ite protests that erupted during the 2011 Arab Spring. He had also criticized the government's treatment of Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite minority.
Nimr's brother tweeted that the cleric's execution would not stop the push for equality. "You are wrong, uncertain and mistaken if you think that killing will stop demands for rights," he wrote. "We remain peacefully demanding reform and change in our country."
Nimr's execution triggered condemnation from many in the Shi'ite world and stoked tensions with regional rival Iran.
Saudi government spokesman Mansour Ben Turki, however, insisted that the executions were justified. He said 43 of the men executed had blood on their hands, and that they were put to death in the presence of witnesses, including a doctor.
Saudi Justice Ministry spokesman Mansour Kafari blasted critics of the executions, arguing that their condemnations were unacceptable.
"Any meddling in the Saudi justice system is unacceptable, because justice is a matter of sovereignty and it is the right of a state to enforce its laws," he was quoted as saying in a television news report. Outside parties "are free to express their views, but ... not to question the fairness of our justice system."
The Lebanese-based terrorist group Hezbollah called Nimr's execution an "assassination," according to Hezbollah's Manar television.
A top Shi'ite cleric in Lebanon warned there would be a backlash because of Nimr's execution. Sheikh Abdul-Amir Kabalan, deputy head of the influential Supreme Shi'ite Islamic Council, the main religious body for Lebanon's 1.2 million Shi'ites, said, "This is a crime at a human level and will have repercussions in the coming days."
In Iran, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, one of the most senior clerics in Shi'ite-ruled Iran, said in an interview with the Mehr news agency that Nimr's execution reflected the "criminal" nature of the Saudi ruling family. "The crime of executing Sheikh Nimr is part of a criminal pattern by this treacherous family," he said. "The Islamic world is expected to cry out and denounce this infamous regime as much as it can."
Hossein Jaber Ansari, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Saudi Arabia would pay a "high price" for executing Nimr.
In undated video footage of Nimr, he is seen saying that he is over 50 years old and that he never once felt safe or secure in the Saudi kingdom, claiming that Sunni leaders have a sectarian mentality.
Iran's Arabic-language al-Alam TV claimed that Saudi security forces have deployed in the Shi'ite region of Qatif, where supporters of Nimr have called for civil disobedience. The TV channel also showed video of an alleged protest in a Shi'ite district in the Gulf state of Bahrain
Dubai-based analyst Theodore Karasik told VOA that the execution of Nimr is likely to have major implications, “especially in Bahrain, Kuwait and the [mostly Shi'ite] Saudi Eastern province.” He added that Iraqi Shi'ites were “likely to be upset” and that things could “get out of control in Yemen with the Houthis firing missiles,” or an Iranian reaction in the Gulf.
Khattar Abou Diab, who teaches political science at the University of Paris, argued that Saudi leaders were sending a strong message to Iran, which they believe is fomenting trouble among Shi'ites in the Gulf, while Iran believes that the Saudis are making trouble with Iranian Sunnis.
Diab said Nimr's execution was likely to inflame sectarian tensions all across the region and that attempts to calm the situation were “doomed to failure.”
Saudi execution facts
Saturday's executions were carried out in 12 cities across the country, with an Interior Ministry spokesman saying the beheadings were done inside prisons and not in public.
Human rights groups say executions in Saudi Arabia are usually public beheadings. They say the decapitated bodies are occasionally left on display. Amnesty International says Saudi Arabia is "one of the most prolific executioners in the world," surpassed only by China and Iran.
The executions were Saudi Arabia’s first in 2016. Rights groups said Saudi Arabia executed at least 157 people in 2015, compared with 90 in 2014.
Amnesty International said the 2015 total was the largest number of executions since 1995, when 192 were recorded.
Saturday's simultaneous execution of 47 people on terrorism charges was the largest number in a single day since the 1980 killings of 63 jihadist rebels who seized Mecca's Grand Mosque in 1979.
Some information for this report came from Reuters, AP and AFP.