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

Saudi Arabia, the West's trusted Middle Eastern ally, may be about to execute three young men arrested for protesting when they were children. VICE News spoke to their families.
March 11, 2016, 10:25pm
Ali al-Nimr, Abdullah al-Zaher, y Dawood al-Marhoon. Imágenes vía Reprieve

This is the first in a three-part VICE News series on the execution of juveniles in Saudi Arabia. In parts two and three, we will examine the arbitrary and sinister processes which constitute the Saudi justice system and its "counterterrorism" strategy, and reveal previously unreported examples of children caught up in its net.

A kingdom where any act can be criminalized according to a judge's personal interpretation of Sharia law, where women are not allowed out without male guardians, where protest is banned, and where teenagers are executed, their decapitated bodies publicly displayed.

The western world stands firm against such atrocities when they take place inside the Islamic State's self-proclaimed caliphate — but this is Saudi Arabia, its trusted ally and major trading partner.

On January 2, four Saudi young men arrested before they were 18 met their fate in a mass execution of 47 people — now, it's feared three more could be killed within days. Saudi Arabian press announced on Friday that January's mass execution would soon be "completed" with the killing of four more prisoners that were sentenced to death in the country's secretive and highly-criticized 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."

Saudi Arabia executes more people than any other country in the world apart from Iran, three quarters of them for non-violent offenses — often just taking part in a protest. Those executed include prisoners whose alleged crime took place when they were children — a clear and egregious violation of international law.

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 demonstrations 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.

"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.

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.

Related: Dead Civilians, Uneasy Alliances, and the Fog of Yemen's War

"People who have been identified as protesters are being rounded up, tortured, and forced to confess to violent offenses," said Higham. "The juveniles have gained lots of attention but there lots of others aged 18 or 19 who are facing execution or have already been executed. They are being used as an example of what happens if you raise your voice too loudly or oppose the government too much."

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-violent 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."

Related: Inside the Underground Efforts to Liberate Saudi Arabia's Domestic Workers

Arbitrary arrests, unfair trials, inhumane punishments, and executing people for crimes committed when they were juveniles are all flagrant violations of international law — including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

But Saudi Arabia's extensive trade and investment links with the West mean its abuses are more or less tolerated by world powers — to the point that the Kingdom's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Faisal bin Hassan Trad, was elected last June as chair of an influential panel on the UN Human Rights Council.

His appointment — which came shortly after Saudi Arabia's civil service website posted a job advertisement seeking eight new executioners — showed that "oil trumps human rights," said Ensaf Haidar, the wife of the pro-democracy activist Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes for blogging about free speech.

The country's extraordinary quantities of cheap oil has helped power Western economic growth. Despite tumbling oil prices, the Kingdom set a year high last November when its shipments rose to 7.72 million barrels a day. But it's not just oil which greases the wheels of Saudi Arabia's diplomatic relations — it's also weapons.

A comprehensive survey of arms sales published last week by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said that between 2011 and 2015 Saudi Arabia was the world's second largest arms importer, with a 275 percent increase compared to 2006–10.

Saudi Arabia is the biggest US arms market, the report shows, and is also the biggest customer of British arms, according to NGO Campaign Against the Arms Trade.

British arms companies have sold more than $8 billion of arms to the Saudis since 2010, it is estimated, while the United States exports to the Kingdom amount to nearly $10 billion a year, with $46 billion-worth of new arms export deals agreed just since President Obama took office. UK government exports to Saudi Arabia intensified further last summer when more than $1.5bn worth of bombs were sold to the kingdom in a three month period.

European Union arms exports to Saudi Arabia are worth around $13.3 billion annually. Last month, the European Parliament voted in favor of an arms embargo against the Kingdom — but on the basis of its bombing campaign in Yemen that was causing a "disastrous humanitarian situation." The disastrous human rights situation inside Saudi Arabia was not a factor.

The UK's assistance to Saudi Arabian defense and security doesn't stop at providing weapons. The UK's College of Policing also rakes in multi-million pound contracts from the Kingdom to train its police force.

The Saudi royal family has also proven to be a loyal ally for US and UK foreign policy in the Middle East, seen as sharing the common goal of "regional stability" and supporting the presence of the West in the region. While it plays lip service to the Palestinian cause, Israel and Saudi Arabia have a tacit understanding not to encroach on each other's interests. The US-Iranian settlement over the latter's nuclear ambitions have further enjoined the two unlikely bedfellows, out of a shared hostility towards any rapprochement with the Islamic Republic.

So long as the Kingdom retains its title of world's biggest oil producer, holds the biggest reserves, and pumps Western coffers with petro-dollars in return for endless supplies of arms, its vaunted status will defy any number or scale of human rights abuses.

US and UK leaders have issued statements about Nimr, Marhoon, and Zaher — but they have essentially been limited to expressing their "deep concern" about their cases. Asked by the BBC about Marhoon's case in October, Cameron said his message to Saudi Arabia was "Don't do it." Sounding like he was chiding a naughty family member, he added "we never stint in telling them that we don't agree with them on these human rights issues."

Both governments have failed to say anything about juveniles already executed, and the UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond went so far as to justify January's mass execution. "Let's not forget that these people were convicted terrorists," he told the BBC, ignoring the fact that the system and institutions used to convict so-called terrorists in Saudi Arabia break every rule in the book for due process.

If the international community wanted to, it could probably save the young men's lives, according to Ali al-Dubaisy, the founder of the European Saudi Organization of Human Rights. "We see the results when allies apply pressure," he said. "The lashes for Raif [Badawi] were stopped and the young men were not executed in January. But they can do more, and as long as they have these oil and arms contracts and deals with the Interior Ministry — the institution that is responsible for this violence and torture — then they are participating in it."

Related: After Dropping Thousands of Bombs on Yemen, Saudi Arabia Is Freaked Out by the UN's Interest

In an annual report released earlier this month, the UN's Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, criticized several countries including Saudi Arabia for their use of the death penalty which he called "tantamount to torture."

In a shock turn of events, Saudi officials said that was nonsense.

"Saudi Arabia is one of the very first countries which promoted human rights,"said Bandar al-Ali, Saudi Arabia's Minister of Culture and Information, during a speech to the UN delivered in Geneva. "My country fights torture in all its physical and moral manifestations through strict legislation and executive measures that are applied on all."

Such claims sound like a "sick joke" when you consider what is going on inside the country, said Reprieve's Foya, and doubtless the families of Nimr, Zaher, and Marhoon would say the same. For now, there is nothing left to do for them but desperately hope for a miracle.

"We are terrified that our son Abdullah is about to be executed," said Hassan al-Zaher. "As we sit and wait for news of his death, we can't even visit him — he is held in solitary confinement 1,000 miles away. We hope that Saudi Arabia's allies will prevent my son and the other juveniles from being killed."

This is the first in a three-part VICE News series on the execution of juveniles in Saudi Arabia. In parts two and three, we will examine the arbitrary and sinister processes which constitute the Saudi justice system and its "counterterrorism" strategy, and reveal previously unreported examples of children caught up in its net.

Follow Miriam Wells on Twitter: @miriambcwells

Follow Namir Shabibi on Twitter: @nshabibi