a Bahraini anti-government protester holds up a picture of jailed Saudi Sheik Nimr al-Nimr during clashes with riot police in Sanabis, Bahrain, a suburb of the capital Manama. (Associated Press Photo)
Riyadh: Saudi Arabia executed 47 prisoners convicted of terrorism charges today, including a Shiite cleric who was a central figure in 2011 Arab Spring-inspired protests in the kingdom.
The killing of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr may spark new unrest among Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority, largely concentrated in the kingdom's east, and in Bahrain, which has seen low-level violence since 2011 protests by its Shiite majority demanding greater rights from its Sunni monarchy.
The cleric's name was on a list of the 47 carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency. It cited the Interior Ministry for the information. Saudi state television also reported the executions.
Of those executed, Saudi Arabia said 45 were Saudi citizens, one was from Chad and another was from Egypt.
Saudi Arabia said a royal court order was issued to implement the sentences after all appeals had been exhausted. The executions were carried out today in the capital, Riyadh, and 12 other cities and towns, it said.
Al-Nimr had been a vocal critic of Bahrain's Sunni-led monarchy, which harshly suppressed the 2011 Shiite-led protests. Saudi Arabia sent troops to help Bahrain quash the uprising, fearing it would spread.
Amnesty International has called the verdict against the cleric, who was in his mid-50s, part of a campaign by Saudi authorities to "crush all dissent."
Before his arrest in 2012, al-Nimr had said the people do not want rulers who kill and carry out injustices against protesters. He was asked at his trial if he disapproves of the Al Saud ruling family.
"If injustice stops against Shiites in the east, then (at that point) I can have a different opinion," the cleric responded, according to his brother Mohammed, who attended court sessions and spoke to The Associated Press before the verdict.
Al-Nimr did not deny the political charges against him, but said he never carried weapons or called for violence.
In announcing the verdicts, Saudi state television showed mugshots of all those executed. Al-Nimr was No. 46, expressionless with a gray beard, his head covered with the red-and-white scarf traditionally worn by Saudi men.
After listing the names and images of those executed, Saudi state television showed black-and-white footage of previous terror attacks in the kingdom, one showing bodies in a mosque after an attack. Soft, traditional music played in the background.
Saudi Arabia carried out at least 157 executions in 2015, with beheadings reaching their highest level in the kingdom in two decades, according to several advocacy groups that monitor the death penalty worldwide.
Coinciding with the rise in executions is the number of people executed for non-lethal offenses that judges have wide discretion to rule on, particularly drug-related crimes.