ISTANBUL • Shi'ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr was from Awamiyah, a poor town surrounded by palm groves in eastern Saudi Arabia and known for opposition to the monarchy.
The 56-year-old studied in Iran and Syria but rose to prominence for the fiery sermons after his return, in which he criticised the ruling family and called for Shi'ite empowerment, even suggesting that Shi'ites could secede from the kingdom.
This gained him a following mostly among young Shi'ites who felt discriminated against by the Persian Gulf governments.
When these young people joined the Arab Spring protests in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia in 2011, Nimr became a leading figure.
During a sermon in 2012, he mocked Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, who had been the Saudi interior minister and who had recently died.
"He will be eaten by worms and suffer the torments of hell in the grave," Nimr said. "The man who made us live in fear and terror; shouldn't we rejoice at his death?"
Prince Nayef's son, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, is now the Crown Prince and runs the Interior Ministry, which carries out death sentences.
The Saudi authorities arrested Nimr in July 2012, while the kingdom was leading a regional push to end the pro-democratic activism of the Arab Spring.
These efforts included sending tanks to prop up the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain, which faced protests led by the country's Shi'ite majority. Shi'ites also protested in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province, where many Shi'ites live and complain of discrimination.
Hundreds of people demonstrated in the province after video footage emerged of Nimr's arrest that showed him bleeding while in custody. The government said he had been wounded in a shoot-out.
He was charged with sedition, disobedience and bearing arms, and was sentenced to death in October 2014.
Despite his fiery tone, his supporters and others who followed his career said he had not called for violence. "To lump this guy with terrorists is a stretch," said Mr Frederic Wehrey, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "To my knowledge, he never called for armed insurrection."
Nimr's wife died of cancer in 2012 in New York. They had one son and three daughters. The children are studying in the United States, with the exception of a teenage daughter who lives in Saudi Arabia.
Both the US and the European Union have expressed concern about Saudi Arabia's decision to execute the cleric, with Washington urging all leaders in the Middle East to "redouble efforts" to de-escalate regional tensions.
"We are particularly concerned that the execution... risks exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced," Mr John Kirby, a spokesman for the US State Department, said in a statement last Saturday.
"We reaffirm our calls on the government of Saudi Arabia to respect and protect human rights, and to ensure fair and transparent judicial proceedings in all cases," he added.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini reiterated the bloc's opposition to the death penalty, and urged the Saudi authorities to promote reconciliation between different communities in the country.
NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS