DUBAI (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia said on Monday two men had been killed following Sunday’s arrest of a prominent Shi‘ite Muslim cleric that stirred some protests in the oil-producing east of the country.
An Interior Ministry spokesman said the deaths followed a protest in the village of Awamiya over the arrest on sedition accusations of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. According to Saudi authorities Nimr was shot in the leg after police came under fire on trying to stop his car.
Nimr, seen as a leading radical cleric promoting Shi‘ite interests, was taken to hospital. Shi‘ites say they struggle to get government jobs or university places, their neighbourhoods suffer under-investment, and their places of worship are often closed down. The government denies such accusations.
The Interior Ministry said there was no clash between protesters and police at the protest following the arrest. It did not make clear how the two people were killed.
“Security authorities were notified by a nearby medical centre of the arrival of four individuals brought in by their relatives,” spokesman Major General Mansour Turki said in a comment sent to Reuters.
“Two of them were dead, the other two were slightly injured. Competent authorities initiated investigations into the incident.”
Shi‘ite activists and websites had 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 assembled in the town of Awamiya,” the Interior Ministry statement said. “Gun shots were overheard in random areas of the town. However, there was no security confrontation whatsoever.”
Across the causeway that links Saudi Arabia with its island neighbour Bahrain, leading Shi‘ite opposition group al-Wefaq released a statement offering condolences to the families of the “martyrs” and calling for Nimr’s release.
It said peaceful activism and dialogue were the only way of solving the situation.
Bahrain has been in turmoil since its Sunni rulers first tried to extinguish a popular uprising driven by the Gulf kingdom’s Shi‘ite majority. Saudi Arabia sent troops to help put down the protests last March.
Both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia accuse non-Arab Shi‘ite Iran of fomenting unrest among their Shi‘ite populations.
One activist said officials of the Eastern Province authorities had summoned the fathers of the two deceased men to discuss burial arrangements. There was no independent confirmation of the report.
The Interior Ministry said the bodies will be handed over for burial after the end of the investigation into the killings.
“The handover of the bodies for burial is linked to the completion of the procedures related to the investigation underway in the crime,” Turki said.
Islam calls for honouring the dead by burying their bodies as quickly as possible.
The Rasid website quoted Sheikh Abdallah al-Khuneizi, a former Shi‘ite religious court judge, as urging residents to avoid any escalation and appealing to security forces to exercise restraint.
“This tense and difficult period that Qatif is passing through requires us all to do all we can to preserve society from any security deterioration to protect lives and sanctities,” the website quoted Khuneizi as saying in a message circulating on social media.
Activists from the Eastern Province, where most of Saudi Arabia’s Shi‘ites live, 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 blanket.
Activists said Nimr had been taken to the capital Riyadh.
Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Ralph Boulton