Police shot two men to death during a demonstration in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, activists reported Monday.
The demonstration, held in the city of Qatif, was held to protest the arrest of activist Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shi'ite cleric.
In addition to the two deaths, two “slightly wounded” individuals were reportedly 'brought in to a nearby medical center by relatives,' the government said in a statement to media that openly denied the protest itself had taken place.
“Gunshots have been overheard in random areas of the town. However, there was no security confrontation whatsoever,” the Interior Ministry said in its statement.
The ministry called the cleric an “instigator of sedition” in an earlier announcement that said he had been hurt in a car accident while being chased by police. The statement added that Nimr would be interrogated after receiving treatment for the leg injury he had sustained in the “accident.”
Nimr has said in a past speech that he believes his arrest or death in custody will motivate further protests to demand reforms, an end to sectarian discrimination and release of political prisoners, the BBC reported.
Saudi Arabia is ruled by the Sunni Muslim ibn Saud clan, but the oil-rich Eastern Province has long been a Shi'ite stronghold. It was in the Eastern Province that last year's region-wide Arab Spring uprising ignited a small but fiery eruption in March 2011.
The protests in the province came in solidarity with Shi'ites in nearby Bahrain, where the Shi'ite majority is also ruled by a Sunni minority monarchy. Shi'ite demonstrations in Bahrain were crushed with assistance from Saudi Arabia.