Guardian: Nimr was a thorn in Saudi regime's side
Courtesy: The Guardian
Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, whose execution by Saudi Arabia has sparked
condemnation across the Middle East, rose to international
prominence during the pro-democracy protests that erupted in the
country’s eastern provinces in 2011.
Nimr’s staunch and vocal support of the movement in regions where
the Shia have a majority but have frequently complained of
marginalisation, saw the 56-year-old cited as the driving force
behind the protests while affording him hero status among Saudi’s
To the Sunni kingdom’s ruling elite, however, Nimr had become a
high-profile thorn in its side. Inspired by the Arab spring, Saudi
Arabia’s mass anti-government protests of 2011 included public
speeches by Nimr that urged an end to the Al Saud monarchy and
pushed for equality for the state’s Shia community.
According to his supporters, the cleric was careful to avoid calling
for violence and eschewed all but peaceful opposition to the
government. On one occasion, he urged protesters to resist police
bullets using only “the roar of the word”. As his role in the
protests became more prominent, he warned the Saudi authorities that
if they refused to “stop bloodshed”, the government’s repressive
tendencies risked it being overthrown.
The state-run Saudi Press Agency announced in July 2012 that Nimr
had been arrested and charged with instigating unrest, a chaotic
incident during which the Shia cleric was shot and injured by
Nimr faced a series of serious charges, including “disobeying the
ruler” and “encouraging, leading and participating in
demonstrations”, allegations that human rights groups including
Amnesty claimed violated free speech protections. The group went on
to describe Nimr’s arrest as part of a campaign by the Saudi
authorities to quash all dissent.
The extent of Nimr’s popularity was articulated by the days of
unrest and large scale protests that followed his controversial
arrest. While in custody, his wife, Muna Jabir al-Shariyavi, died in
hospital in New York, further galvanising public sympathy for him.
In turn, he began a hunger strike while human rights groups alleged
he appeared to have been tortured and called for international
support to allow access by family and lawyers.
In October 2014, Saudi Arabia’s specialised criminal court sentenced
Nimr to death for seeking ‘foreign meddling’ in the kingdom along
with ‘disobeying’ its rulers and taking up arms against the security
forces”. His brother, Mohammad al-Nimr, tweeted information about
the death sentence and was promptly arrested on the same day.
As news of the sentence travelled, the head of Iran’s armed forces
warned Saudi Arabia that it would “pay dearly” if it dared execute
the cleric. Powerful and prominent in life, it is the nature of
Nimr’s death that could shape his legacy.
Nimr was born in 1960 in the village of al-Awamiyah in the Qatif
region of eastern Saudi Arabia. After completing his secondary
education he moved to Iran in 1979 to study in a Shia seminary
before continuing his studies in Syria.
He returned to Saudi Arabia in 1994, and almost immediately his
relationship with the authorities became brittle. The kingdom’s
intelligence services questioned him frequently, largely over his
calls for increased religious freedom. He was eventually detained in
2003 for leading public prayers in his home village, where he had
become an imam.
Nimr rose to national prominence in February 2009, when Shia
pilgrims at al-Baqi cemetery clashed with religious police and
security forces. As the clashes spread across the eastern regions,
Nimr delivered a speech accusing the political authorities of
encouraging the religious police to target the Shia community. He
also said the kingdom’s Shia community would no longer be cowed into
silence, a statement of resistance that his supporters claim would
eventually lead to his execution.
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