In a tragic and provocative mood sure to raise levels of tension in the wider Middle East, Saudi Arabia has executed the prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
He was among 47 people put to death. Sheikh Nimr supported the anti-government protests in Eastern Province in 2011.
Iran said Saudi Arabia would pay a “high price” for the execution.
At least one protest march was held in Qatif, in Eastern Province, where security has been raised. Protesters shouted the slogans “The people want the fall of the regime”, and “Down with the al-Saud family”, reminiscent of the 2011 protests.
The BBC understands that among those executed was a man convicted of shooting dead a freelance cameraman on an assignment for the BBC, Simon Cumbers, in 2004. Adel al-Dubayti was sentenced in November 2014 for his role in multiple al-Qaeda attacks including the one in the capital Riyadh in which Cumbers was killed and which also left reporter Frank Gardner critically injured.
The executions were carried out simultaneously in 12 locations across Saudi Arabia.
Those also put to death include Sunnis convicted of involvement in al-Qaeda-linked terror attacks in 2003. Of the 47 executed, one was a Chadian national while another was Egyptian. The rest are Saudis.
Saudi Arabia’s top cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, defended the executions, calling them a “mercy to the prisoners” as it would prevent them committing more crimes, Associated Press reported.
Sheikh Nimr’s supporters say he advocated only peaceful demonstrations and eschewed all violent opposition to the government.
The cleric’s nephew, Ali al-Nimr, who was 17 when he was arrested following the demonstrations and also faces execution, was not listed as one of those killed.
His brother, Mohammed al-Nimr, said he hoped any reaction to the execution would be peaceful.
Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for “angry demonstrations in front of Saudi sites and interests”, but said protests should be peaceful.
Lebanon’s Shia council called the execution a “grave mistake” while the Hezbollah militant group said it was an “assassination”.
Police in Bahrain fired tear gas at protesters angry at the execution.
Saudi Arabia carried out more than 150 executions last year, the highest figure recorded for 20 years.