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Saudi Arabia Cuts Ties With Iran as Fallout From Mass Execution Continues

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister says the kingdom has severed diplomatic relations with Iran a day after protesters looted and burned the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
Manifestación contra Arabia Saudí frente a la embajada saudí en Teherán. (Imagen por Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA)

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister says the kingdom has severed diplomatic relations with Iran a day after a mob of angry protesters looted and burned the Saudi embassy in Tehran following the execution of a prominent Shiite cleric and 46 other prisoners on Saturday.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir announced on Sunday that all Iranian diplomats must leave Saudi Arabia within 48 hours, according to AFP.


After Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-majority Muslim nation, executed Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, Iranian protesters ransacked the Saudi embassy, smashing windows and furniture and setting fire to the building. Tehran's police chief said an unspecified number of "unruly elements" were arrested, and a prosecutor said 40 people were held.

Related: Angry Protesters Ransack and Torch Saudi Embassy in Iran After Mass Execution

Another smaller protest occurred outside the embassy on Sunday. Video footage posted on Twitter by Iranian journalist Mehdi Sayyari showed riot police using force and pepper spray to disperse the crowd. Sayyari reported that the second protest lasted about an hour and a half, with "no major incident this time."

Police forces using pepper spray to disperse protesters near Saudi embassy. — Mehdi Sayyari (@mehdisayyari)January 3, 2016

Police forces pushing back protestors near Saudi embassy, Tehran. — Mehdi Sayyari (@mehdisayyari)January 3, 2016

The mass execution of 47 people on Saturday marked the most people put to death by Saudi Arabia on a single day since the 1980 killing of 63 rebels who seized Mecca's Grand Mosque in 1979. Nimr and three other Shiites, all accused of involvement in shooting police, attracted most attention in the region and beyond, with reports of protests in Iran, as well as Bahrain, Yemen, Pakistan, and India-controlled Kashmir.

Nimr was the most vocal critic of the Saudi ruling family among the country Shiite minority. He had come to be seen as a leader of the sect's younger activists, who had tired of the failure of older, more measured leaders to achieve equality with Sunnis.


Relatives of Nimr, reached by telephone by Reuters, said authorities have them that his body had been buried "in a cemetery of Muslims" and would not be handed over to the family.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani condemned the execution as "inhuman," but also urged the prosecution of "extremist individuals" for attacking the embassy and the Saudi consulate in the northeastern city of Mashhad, state media reported.

Related: Saudi Arabia Kicked Off the New Year With 47 Executions, Including a Top Shiite Cleric

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also criticized Saudi Arabia for the second straight day over Nimr's execution.

"The unjustly spilled blood of this oppressed martyr will no doubt soon show its effect and divine vengeance will befall Saudi politicians," state TV quoted Khamenei as saying. Khameini posted a photo on his website comparing the execution to the actions of the Islamic State, depicting a Saudi executioner next to the notorious Islamic State executioner known as Jihadi John with the caption "Any differences?"

Iranian protestors during a demonstration near the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran. (Photo by Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA)

In Iraq, whose Shiite-led government is close to Iran, religious and political figures demanded that ties with Riyadh be severed, calling into question Saudi attempts to forge a regional alliance against Islamic State, which controls swaths of Iraq and Syria.

Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, described the executions as an "unjust aggression." The opinion of Sistani, based in the Shiite holy city of Najaf south of Baghdad, carries weight with millions of Shiites in Iraq and across the region, including in Saudi Arabia.


The US State Department said Nimr's execution "risks exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced," a sentiment echoed by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. The State Department also urged Saudi Arabia to respect and protect human rights.

Related: Saudi Arabia Hit a 'Grim New Milestone' for Beheadings in 2015

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad al-Hussein said it was not clear those killed were granted effective legal defense, while the scale of the executions was very disturbing "particularly as some of those sentenced to death were accused of non-violent crimes."

The 47 executions included 45 Saudis, one Egyptian, and a man from Chad. The four Shiites were convicted of involvement in shootings and petrol bomb attacks that killed several police during anti-government protests from 2011-13. More than 20 Shiites were shot dead by the authorities in those protests. Family members of the executed Shiites have denied they were involved in attacks and said they were only peaceful protesters against sectarian discrimination.

Human rights groups say the kingdom's judicial process is unfair, pointing to accusations that confessions have been secured under torture and that defendants in court have been denied access to lawyers. Riyadh denies torture and says its judiciary is independent.

Reuters contributed to this report. 

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