Saudi Arabia said on Monday that two men have been killed after protests in a Shia Muslim area in the eastern part of the world’s top oil exporter, following the arrest of a prominent Shia cleric.
The cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, is an outspoken Shia cleric and anti-government activist.
Hussain al-Alk, a human rights activist, told Al Jazeera, “The speeches of Sheikh Nimr were very hot, and he’s always attacking the government.”
A statement from an Interior Ministry spokesman said the deaths followed a protest in the village of Awamiya over the arrest of Nimr, but said there was no clash between protesters and police.
“Security authorities had been notified by a nearby medical centre on the arrival of four individuals brought in by their relatives,” Major General Mansour Turki, the spokesman, said in a comment sent to Reuters.
“Two of them were dead, the other two were slightly injured. Competent authorities intiated investigations in the incident.”
Shia activists and websites had also reported that at least two men had been killed in the protests. The Rasid website named the men as Akbar al-Shakhouri and Mohamed al-Felfel.
“In the aftermath of the arrest… a limited number of people have assembled in the town of Awamiya,” the Interior Ministry statement said. “Gun shots have been overheard in random areas of the town. However, there was no security confrontation whatsoever.”
This demonstration in Awamiya followed earlier protests in Qatif, which began soon after the arrest and were the largest the city had seen since November and December – when at least six demonstrators were shot and killed.
Hundreds of protesters were reported to have taken to the in Qatif, on Sunday after Nimr was chased, shot and arrested while driving earlier in the day, Alk told Al Jazeera.
Alk, a resident of Qatif and staffer at the Adala Center for Human Rights, said the arrest took place around 4pm and that organisers called for mass demonstrations after the evening prayer.
He said that he believed the government was prompted by influential Sunnis to escalate its pressure on the Shia opposition.
“It seems that in the last month the government became too worried. The Sunnis have started saying, ‘Why when the Sunnis are talking against the government you are arresting him immediately, while Shias, you are not doing anything to him’,” Alk said.
The official Saudi Press Agency said Nimr was arrested after he and his followers exchanged fire with security forces and crashed into a police vehicle. It said Nimr was shot in the thigh and faces charges of instigating unrest in the oil-rich Eastern Province.
Nimr has been wanted by authorities after making calls for more rights for Shias, a minority denomination in the strictly run Sunni monarchy. In 2009, he suggested forming a movement for succession unless the government released political prisoners, end discrimination against Shias and take steps against corruption.
Alk said Shias, who number at least 2 million according to the International Crisis Group, are prevented from obtaining high-ranking positions in the government and security forces.
Early reports of Nimr’s arrest, which spread online on Sunday, prompted demonstrations in the village of Awamiya, where Shias have clashed with security forces several times since early last year, said Tawfiq al-Seif, a community leader.
Activists from the Eastern Province, where most of Saudi Arabia’s Shia live, posted pictures online of the grey-bearded Nimr in a vehicle covered with what appeared to be a blood-stained white blanket and being cradled by an unidentifiable man in uniform.
An interior ministry spokesman could not be reached for comment after several attempts by Reuters.
Nimr’s brother said the cleric was detained by police while driving from a farm to his house in Qatif.
|Footage allegedly showing protests calling for the fall of the ruling Saudi monarchy on Sunday night in Qatif [YouTube]|
“They [the police] took him from his car and blood can be seen near his car,” said Mohammed al-Nimr.
“He had been wanted by the interior ministry for a couple of months because of his political views.
“In the past couple of months he has adopted a lot of Shia issues and expressed his views on them, demanding their rights.”
Nimr was previously detained for several days in 2004 and 2006, his brother said.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter and a key ally of the US and Europe, has largely escaped the kind of protests that have toppled four Arab heads of state since last year and have shook other governments.
Small and sporadic protests have taken place in the Eastern Province, where the oil sector is concentrated and where about one million Shias, many of whom complain of discrimination, live.
In January, the kingdom ordered the arrest of 23 Eastern Province Shias whom it accused of being responsible for unrest that had led to shootings and protests.