SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Saudi Arabia announced that it has executed 47 people for terrorism, including a prominent Shia cleric. It is the largest mass execution in the kingdom since 1980. Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was a cleric who supported peaceful antigovernment protests in 2011 and denied he had endorsed violence. His execution could rip open sectarian tensions in the Middle East that are already flaring. NPR's Leila Fadel joins us now from Dubai. Leila, thanks so much for being with us.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Thank you.
SIMON: Tell us who this sheikh was and why he was executed.
FADEL: Well, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr really became a symbol for young Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia protesting for their rights in 2011. He publicly criticized the royal family. He supported peaceful protests. He supported antigovernment protests in nearby Bahrain. And then he was arrested two years ago, and he was actually shot while he was getting detained and sentenced to death. He was convicted of disobeying the ruling family. He was accused of taking up arms against the state, of foreign meddling. But human rights defenders have called his trial unfair and politicized. Among those executed also were three other Shia activists, and his young nephew is also on death row.
SIMON: What's the reaction been?
FADEL: Well, we've seen condemnation from Shia leaders from Iran to Yemen to Lebanon. In Iran, the foreign minister accused Saudi Arabia of supporting extremism while executing domestic critics. A top Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami (ph), called the royal family criminal and warned that this execution could actually lead to its demise. Already we're hearing of protests in Bahrain. There are planned protests according to residents in the eastern province of Qatif, which is where Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr is from. And Nimr's brother has condemned - obviously has expressed sadness about his brother's death but also warned against violence in reaction. He says his brother always talked about peace and a war of words, not violence.
SIMON: And what has Saudi Arabia said about the executions?
FADEL: Well, they say that this is legal. This is, you know, these mass executions are for the safety of the kingdom. The country's top cleric says it's in line with Islamic law - Saudi Arabia follows a very strict interpretation of Islamic law - and were needed for the safety of the country.
SIMON: There was a trial, right?
FADEL: There was a trial, which Amnesty International and others described as politicized and unfair. They've been calling for this death sentence to be overturned along with these other activists, especially his young nephew. And so far, the kingdom has shown no willingness to do that.
SIMON: And what about concerns as to what affect these executions could have in the region?
FADEL: Well, really, there's concern about a possible regional sectarian war. I'm not saying that's going to happen, but that's what, you know, analysts are worried about. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been battling for influence in the region for years now. And already we're looking at a Middle East that's mired in political conflicts that have taken on sectarian overtones, from Yemen to Bahrain to Iraq. And this execution, which was widely seen as unfair, as politicized because this is a Shia cleric who supported Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia who've been demanding their rights who say they're treated as second-class citizens, that they say that he was killed as part of this competition between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. Experts say that they really worry it will get a lot worse than what we're seeing right now.
SIMON: NPR's Leila Fadel in Dubai, thanks so much for being with us.
FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.