Saudi Arabia's interior ministry says it has executed 47 "terrorists", including Shia religious leader Nimr al-Nimr and a convicted al-Qaeda leader Faris al-Zahrani.

In a press statement read out on state TV on Saturday, the Saudi ministry listed the names of all those it said were already convicted on charges of terrorism.

The executions led to protests in a number of countries on Saturday, including Iran - where demonstrators broke into the Saudi embassy and started fires.

The death sentence given to Nimr al-Nimr, who led anti-government protests in the country's east, was confirmed by the Supreme Court in October.

Faris al-Zahrani had been in custody ever since his detention near the Yemeni border in 2004 [YouTube]

He was convicted of sedition, disobedience and bearing arms. Nimr did not deny the political charges against him, but said he never carried weapons or called for violence.

Many of the other men executed had been linked to attacks in the kingdom between 2003 and 2006, blamed on al-Qaeda.

Zahrani, described by Saudi media as al-Qaeda's top religious leader in the kingdom, was one of them.

He was detained in 2004 while allegedly in possession of weapons.

An Egyptian citizen and a Chadian citizen were also among the executed, the ministry said. The rest were all Saudis.

Reuters news agency reported four of those executed were Shia.

Saudi Ministry of Justice spokesman Mansour al-Qufari said: "The judiciary is objective and we deal objectively with the cases on merit.

"There is no difference between what a person does regardless of his ethnic origin or affiliation, or what he believes. We deal with facts and criminal intent."

Some were beheaded while others were shot by firing squad, Mansur al-Turki, Saudi interior ministry spokesman, said.

Notably absent from the list was Nimr's nephew, Ali. He was arrested at the age of 17.

Appeal for calm

Nimr's execution prompted calls for demonstrations in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and in other countries of the Middle East, but Mohammed al-Nimr, Nimr's brother, appealed for calm.

"This action will spark anger of [Shia] youths" in Saudi Arabia, but "we reject violence and clashing with authorities", he said.

Nimr spent more than a decade studying theology in predominantly Shia Iran.

In Tehran, a number of protesters broke into Saudi Arabia's embassy and started fires on Saturday night, after gathering there to denounce Nimr's execution.

As of 22:00 GMT on Saturday, special police forces had secured the embassy, and Iran's foreign ministry called for calm after the protesters had been dispersed by police.

Diplomatic protest

Earlier on Saturday, Iran’s foreign ministry condemned the execution, calling it "the depth of imprudence and irresponsibility" on the part of the Saudi government.

"The Saudi government will pay a heavy price for adopting such policies," Hossein Jaber Ansari, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency.

Later, the Saudi government summoned the Iranian ambassador to protest against Iran's reaction to the execution.

Meanwhile, dozens of people marched through Bahrain's capital to protest the executions, while in London, people gathered outside the Saudi embassy, voicing their support for Nimr. Other protests were held in Pakistan and Yemen.

There were also protests within Saudi Arabia, with people taking to the streets in the eastern town of Al-Awamiya. 

The US state department said in a statement that Nimr's execution risked "exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced", while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was "deeply dismayed" by the executions.

Hussain al-Shobokshi, a prominent Saudi columnist, told Al Jazeera that Saudi authorities did not differentiate between "Shia source of terror and Sunni source of terror".

"[Saudi Arabia] made sure it saw no difference between any form of terror, as long as it was threatening its people and its economy," he said.

Listen to what Shobokshi told Al Jazeera:

The interior ministry said that those convicted had participated in attacks against residential compounds and government buildings.

Bombings of compounds in Riyadh in May 2003 killed more than 30 people.

The following year there were 30 attacks, which led to a government crackdown on al-Qaeda and other homegrown fighters.

Nimr had called for Eastern Province, an oil-rich region where about two million Shia live, to be separated from the rest of Saudi Arabia.

He also criticised the government for what he said was the marginalisation of the Shia minority in the country.

Friday's announcement came just days after Amnesty International said Saudi Arabia had executed at least 151 people in 2015, the most beheadings in 20 years.

Khalid al-Dakhil, a Saudi political commentator based in Riyadh, challenged "the integrity" of the rights organisation's report, saying it failed to mention Iran's execution record.

"Iran executes far more people a year than Saudi Arabia, but it does not get the negative publicity Saudi Arabia has. This is something that must be addressed," Dakhil told Al Jazeera.

Saudi Arabia said some of those convicted had participated in attacks in Riyadh in 2003 [EPA]

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies