RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's interior minister said on Monday that a prominent anti-government cleric arrested earlier this month was mentally unstable, undermining a figure who has a growing following among disaffected Shi'ite Muslim youths.
Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was shot in the leg during the arrest which sparked deadly protests among members of the minority Shi'ite community who say they are routinely discriminated against in the Sunni-dominated kingdom.
Three people were killed in the demonstrations in what the Interior Ministry described as exchanges of fire.
Shi'ite activists in the Qatif district of Eastern Province, a center of the Shi'ite population where Nimr has a base of support, said security forces fired on peaceful protesters, a charge authorities deny.
Interior Minister Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz dismissed Nimr, criticized by authorities for rejecting the idea of working with the government to address Shi'ite concerns, as mentally incapable.
"Nimr al-Nimr, the spreader of sedition, is a man of dubious scholarship and dubious mental condition, and the issues he raises and speaks about show a deficiency or imbalance of the mind," the state news agency quoted the minister as saying.
Shi'ites have long complained that no members of the sect are appointed to important government positions and that they struggle to find jobs with state companies and university places. They also say the government closes their religious centers.
Saudi Arabia, dominated by the strict Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam that regards Shi'ism as heretical, denies discrimination. It accuses non-Arab Shi'ite Iran of fomenting unrest among the Shi'ite minority.
Prince Ahmed, who was appointed interior minister in June, said Nimr's children were on government scholarships in the United States and that the cleric's wife had joined them there for cancer treatment paid for by the government.
(Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)