Thousands of supporters in Saudi Arabia turned out for the funerals of two men killed during protests triggered by the arrest of a prominent Shia cleric, witnesses have said.
The funerals for Mohammad al-Felfel and Akbar al-Shakhouri were held on Wednesday in the Qatif in the Gulf nation’s Eastern Province.
The men were shot dead on Sunday in what Saudi government spokesman described as a “criminal act” after protests broke out following the arrest of cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on sedition charges.
Activists say the two men were killed by police snipers stationed on rooftops, a report denied by the Interior Ministry.
The cleric’s arrest and the killings have raised tensions in one of the most volatile regions in Saudi Arabia, where the kingdom’s Shia minority is concentrated.
The Eastern Province is home to a Shia population that has long complained of discrimination and marginalisation by the Sunni ruling family.
The Saudi government denies any discrimination.
An activist who said he was taking part in one funeral in the village of Awamiya on Wednesday night talked of tens of
thousands of mourners in the street.
It was not possible to verify the figure.
The activist said marchers chanted “Down with the House of Saud”, referring to the kingdom’s ruling family, and “Down with Mohammed bin Fahd”, the governor of the Eastern Province.
The crowd also carried Bahraini flags and chanted “Qatif and Bahrain are one people”, said the activist, in reference to Shias in the neighbouring island kingdom who have led an uprising demanding reforms.
Earlier, activists posted videos of what they said was Felfel’s funeral late on Tuesday in Qatif, showing large crowds,
many of them men in white robes, chanting “Down with Mohammed bin Fahd” in reference to the governor of the Eastern Province.
They also emailed pictures of men holding placards criticising the royal family.
The Rasid news website said Saudi security forces stayed away from the funeral procession, which passed through the main Abdulaziz Street in the centre of Qatif.
Mansour al-Turki, Interior Ministry spokesman, said security forces had worked hard to ensure the safety of the mourners.
“Some trouble-seekers took advantage of the gathering to hide in their midst and divert the context of this event which
led the security forces to do their duty to keep the peace and ensure the safety of those participating in the funeral procession,” he said.
Shia community leaders have appealed for calm during the funerals, urging people to avoid being drawn into a situation that could lead to bloodshed.
“This tense and difficult period that Qatif is passing through necessitates that we all work together to safeguard our society from any security deterioration, God forbid, to protect lives and sanctities,” read a statement signed by a group of local notables, including Sheikh Abdallah al-Khuneizi, a former Shia religious court judge.
The statement also appealed to security forces to exercise restraint and patience to get past a “dangerous and critical
Nimr is seen as a leading cleric promoting the Shia cause. He had been arrested and released before.
His brother said police had ambushed him on his way home from a farm he owns. Activists posted pictures on the Internet of a grey-bearded man they identified as Nimr inside a vehicle.
He was covered with what appeared to be a blood-stained white sheet. Activists said Nimr had been taken to the capital Riyadh.
Protests broke out in the Eastern Province region in March 2011 when unrest in neighbouring Bahrain was quashed with the assistance of Saudi and other Gulf troops.