‘Please Help Me to Save My Son’: More Executions of Teenage Protesters Imminent in Saudi Arabia

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SHAFAQNA- On January 2, Saudi Arabia executed four young men as part of a mass execution of 47 people.  The four were arrested before they were 18, and now it’s feared three more young men could be killed within days.

Saudi Arabian government-affiliated press announced on Friday that January’s mass execution would soon be “completed” with the killing of four more prisoners who were sentenced to death in the country’s secretive Specialized Criminal Court (SCC).

Ali al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher, who were arrested for protesting at age 17,17, and 15, respectively, were all sentenced in the SCC last year, and were all originally included on a published list of 52 people scheduled to be executed on January 2. It’s thought the considerable international attention on their cases may have saved their lives — but now, it seems the Kingdom’s mercy may have expired.

The threat of execution has terrified the young men’s families, who have not been given any information on their cases by Saudi authorities, and have not even been able to speak to their relatives since December.

Abdullah al-Zaher was 15 when he was arrested. (Photo via Reprieve)

“We have been living a nightmare ever since Abdullah was arrested,” said Abdullah’s father, Hassan al-Zaher.  He described his son as a funny child who loves animals, especially horses. He was 15 when he was fired upon by Saudi security forces during a pro-democracy demonstration, before being arrested and taken to a police station where he was beaten so hard with wire iron rods that he was left with permanent, visible injuries. “Please help me to save my son from the imminent threat of death,” Zaher implored the international community. “He doesn’t deserve to die just because he attended a protest.”

Aside from their young age, Nimr, Marhoon, and Zaher share two more crucial characteristics — they are all Shia Muslims, a minority within Saudi Arabia which faces systemic discrimination. And they were all sentenced to death for taking part in protests in the country’s Shia-dominated Eastern Province demanding better treatment for members of their religion.

Saudi Arabia’s attempt at an Arab Spring uprising — a series of protests from late 2011 onwards in the Eastern Province, which is culturally and geographically close to Iran — was met with a brutal response. At least 10, and possibly dozens of demonstrators were reported to have been killed and hundreds were arrested.

Protesters, including juveniles, have since languished in jail or been tried in secret in the SCC — a tribunal set up in 2008 to try terrorism suspects that has increasingly been used to try activists and dissidents.

International rights NGO Reprieve alleges that Nimr, Marhoon and Zaher were tortured into signing false confessions and denied proper access to legal representation.

Ali al-Nimr was 17 when he was arrested. (Photo via Reprieve)

“This is a kind of terrorism and force being exercised against childhood,” Ali’s father, Mohammed al-Nimr, told the Washington Post last October. Ali was run down and arrested without a warrant as he rode his bicycle away from school in February 2012, according to this family.

He was accused of participating in an “illegal demonstration” and a number of other offenses, including “explaining how to give first aid to protestors” and using his Blackberry to invite others to join him at the protest. His false confession was the only evidence brought against him, according to Reprieve — evidence strong enough in Saudi Arabia to result in a conviction and sentence of “death by crucifixion,” which according to the Kingdom’s definition means beheading then displaying the body in public.

While Ali escaped death on January 2, his uncle, arrested in July 2012, didn’t. Nimr al-Nimr was a prominent Shia cleric and activist who had long called for more rights for Saudi Arabia’s Shia Muslims. His death sparked international protest and dangerous tensions between the Kingdom and Iran.

Dawood al Marhoon was 17 when he was arrested. (Photo via Reprieve)

Dawned al-Marhoon also made the mistake of taking to the streets to demand political reform in 2011. He was arrested without a warrant in May 2012, but released on the same day on the condition that he would spy on activists. When he did not comply he was re-arrested, reportedly tortured, and forced to sign a confession. He was sentenced to death by beheading in the SCC in October 2015.

“He is a strong person, patient and strong-willed,” his mother Umm Dawoud said. He excelled at school and wanted to go to university to study engineering and “realize his dreams,” she said. Now, the dream is simply for Dawood to stay alive.

“We know nothing about [what is happening to] him,” she said. “A sentence of beheading is unjust for anyone, even more so for someone his age. He only went out to ask for his rights.”

Maya Foa, head of the death penalty team at Reprieve, said Friday’s report that four more people sentenced in the SCC were due to be executed was deeply worrying.

“January’s mass execution included political protestors and juveniles — these prisoners weren’t ‘terrorists,’ but ordinary people who lost their lives for the so-called ‘crime’ of speaking out against the Saudi regime,” she said. “It would be appalling if the Saudis now executed three further juveniles who were brutally tortured into ‘confessing.'”

“The regime is trying to make an example out of those who openly dissent,” Reprieve’s Saudi Arabia case worker Catherine Higham said. This has been a particular phenomenon in the Shia-dominated Eastern Province, where people are angry about years of discrimination against Shia Muslims and the fact that the region has not seen the benefits of oil revenue despite sitting atop some of the country’s largest oil fields.

China is often cited as the world’s number one executioner, because it puts more people to death than any other country. But per capita, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’s executions outrun China’s by a mile.

Based on an estimate that around 3,000 people are executed each year, China’s per capita execution rate is one per 452,000 people, according to Death Penalty Worldwide, a Cornell University Law School project that collates execution data from around the world. That compares to a per capita rate in Iran last year of around one per 71,000 people, and a Saudi Arabian per capita rate in 2015 of around one per 183,000 people.

People receiving the death sentence in Saudi Arabia do so at the hands of a justice system that has no written criminal law.

“Prosecutors and judges are free to criminalize any act in accordance with their own interpretation of precepts of Islamic law,” notes Human Rights Watch.

Of the 158 people killed by the Saudi state in 2015, 72 percent were convicted of non-lethal offenses such as political protest or drug-related crimes, according to research by Reprieve.

“The use of torture to extract ‘confessions’ is widespread,” it said in a report last October. “Reprieve has identified specific cases where prisoners have been beaten to the point of suffering broken bones and teeth. Finally, the use of horrific forms of execution including beheading and “crucifixion,” and stoning, sees the Kingdom violate the most basic prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.”

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