By Bill Blum
By the time you read this column, Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, Dawoud Hussein al-Marhoon and Abdullah Hasan al-Zaher may be dead.
In case you’ve never heard their names, they are young prisoners of conscience currently housed in solitary confinement at the notorious al-Ha’ir penitentiary in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. They are waiting to be beheaded. In all likelihood, as is Saudi custom, no advance public notice of their executions will be given. We’ll learn of their demise only after the fact, via social media, or when the Saudi government officially announces that their sentences have been carried out.
Al-Nimr, al-Marhoon and al-Zaher are Shiite Muslims who were arrested without warrants at different times in 2012 for participating in pro-democracy protests in the country’s Eastern province during the Arab Spring uprising of 2011-2012. Al-Nimr and al-Marhoon were 17 years old when they were apprehended; al-Zaher was 16.
Although approximately 90 percent of the Saudi populationconsists of Sunni Muslims, the oil-rich Eastern province is predominantly Shiite. Relations between the two strands of Islam have never been good in Saudi Arabia, but tensions havereached a fever pitch in recent years. Branded as apostates by prominent Sunni clerics, the Shiites of Saudi Arabia are anoppressed and segregated minority, historically excluded from access to government services, jobs and leadership positions and often subject to arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.
Al-Nimr and his cohorts were held for more than two years in pretrial detention without access to counsel while they were interrogated andreportedly tortured into signing confessions. Their alleged crimes, according to Amnesty International, included “chanting slogans against the State with the intent of destabilizing the security of the country and overturning its system of government, participating in the killing of police officers by making and using Molotov cocktails to attack them” and “carrying out an armed robbery.”
Their trials were devoid of the most basic due-process protections. Predictably, in 2014 all three were convicted and sentenced by the nation’s Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh to death by beheading. Their convictions and sentences were subsequently upheld on appeal.
The only difference in the outcome of the three cases is that al-Nimr won’t just have his head lopped off. His body will be crucified afterward and put on public display as a warning to other would-be troublemakers. Al-Nimr is the nephew of a leading Shiite spiritual figure—Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr—who is also under a death sentence for his vocal criticism of the monarchy, the House of Saud, which has exercised absolute rule over its people since 1932.
Saudi Arabia is one of the last nations on earth that stage public executions. “They are carried out not just in Riyadh, but in other cities,” Neil Hicks of Human Rights First (HRF) told me in an interview last week. “In Riyadh, they generally take place after Friday prayers in a downtown courtyard known locally as ‘Chop Square,’ when crowds of men are already gathered in the area and provide a ready audience.”
Beheading is the most common method of execution, but other means, such as firing squads, are occasionally used. Amnesty International reports that in 2014, the Saudis executed 90 people. This year, through Oct. 22, the number has soared to 137. Apart from China and Iran, no other country consistently exceeds such totals.
Hicks, who formerly worked as a researcher for the Middle East department of Amnesty International in London before becoming director of human rights promotion at the HRF in New York, says the spike in the Saudi death penalty is part of a general “clampdown on human rights” that has taken place over the last three to four years “because the regime is concerned with the impact of the Arab Spring” and “threats to authoritarian rule.” Public beheadings, he explains, are “meant to keep order and suppress dissent.”
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