A protester holds up a picture of Shaikh Nimr Al Nimr during a rally at the coastal town of Qatif against his arrest. Image Credit: Reuters

Jeddah: A prominent Shiite Muslim cleric wanted for “sedition” was arrested in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province late on Sunday after being shot in the leg by police in an exchange of fire, the Interior Ministry said.

Activists said reports that Shaikh Nimr Al Nimr had been arrested prompted demonstrations in the mostly Shiite Qatif region of the Eastern Province, which has been the focal point of protests alleging discrimination, and where the cleric was seen as a leading radical.

Shiite activists and websites reported that at least two men had been killed in the protests, but there was no independent confirmation of the deaths and a government spokesman was not immediately able to comment on the reports of demonstrations or casualties.

“When the aforementioned person and those with him tried to resist the security men and initiated shooting and crashed into one of the security patrols while trying to escape, he was dealt with in accordance with the situation and responded to in kind and arrested after he was wounded in his thigh,” the state news agency reported, citing Major General Mansour Turki, an Interior Ministry spokesman.

Turki said Nimr, who was accused of sedition, had been taken to hospital.

Tawfiq Al Saif, a Shiite community leader, said reports of the arrest had sparked protests in the village of Awamiya, which is in the Qatif district. An activist in Awamiya said he had witnessed a protest march of thousands of people and that he had seen 20 injured in a clash with riot police.

Al Nimr’s brother said the cleric was detained by police while driving from a farm to his house in Qatif.

“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 Shiite issues and expressed his views on them, demanding their rights,” Al Nimr’s brother added.

Al Nimr was previously detained for several days in 2004 and 2006, his brother said.

American diplomats who met Al Nimr in August 2008 described him as a second-tier figure in Saudi Shiite politics, but one who was growing in popularity, according to two contemporary diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.

In January 2008, he gave a sermon calling for the creation of a “righteous opposition front”, said the cables.

The cleric represents a more radical strain among Saudi Shiites, who feel the community’s established leaders have failed to make headway with ending what they see as systematic discrimination.

“The general feeling is that [older leaders] couldn’t deliver what they promised or what the government promised them. Then there was [Al] Nimr who could represent the radical forces — the forces that deny the state has the ability to follow its promises. That’s why a good part of the new generation have listened to him,” said Al Saif.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter and a key US ally, has largely escaped the kind of protests that have toppled four Arab heads of state since last year.