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Saudi Arabia beheaded a pro-democracy protester set to attend college in U.S.

Mujtaba al-Sweikat was one of 37 people the kingdom executed on what human rights groups say were trumped-up charges.

by Emma Ockerman
Apr 25 2019, 1:37pm

In 2011, when he was a teenager, Mujtaba al-Sweikat attended a handful of pro-democracy rallies in Saudi Arabia. This week, after imprisoning him for seven years, the Saudi government beheaded him.

Prior to his arrest, al-Sweikat was set to attend Western Michigan University, and in 2017 his case made national news after faculty at the university pleaded for his release.

Al-Sweikat was arrested in 2012 after attending several pro-democracy protests, according to the Detroit Free Press. He was accused of armed disobedience, injuring security forces, destroying public property, causing chaos and disrupting the peace. Authorities described his charges as terrorism-related, according to the Detroit News.

A press release from the Saudi Press Agency on Tuesday stated that al-Sweikat was executed alongside 36 other people, some of whom were charged with setting off explosives that allegedly killed security officers. But Amnesty International dismissed the legitimacy of their convictions, saying they “relied on confessions extracted through torture.” Another person listed on the Saudi Press Agency announcement, Abdulkareem al-Hawaj, was convicted on charges relating to pro-democracy protests. He was 16 when he was arrested.

Western Michigan University told the Detroit Free Press in 2017 that al-Sweikat was planning to study English and pre-finance, and was arrested at King Fahd International Airport in Dammam, on his way to visit the campus. The international human rights group Reprieve has accused the government of forcing him into a confession and denying him access to a lawyer before his execution.

"This is another egregious display of brutality by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman," Reprieve Director Maya Foa said in a statement to the Free Press. "At least three of the people executed today were arrested as teenagers and tortured into false confessions. Many were convicted of non-lethal crimes, such as attending protests.”

The mass execution was Saudi Arabia’s largest since January 2016, when it killed 47 people, according to the Detroit News. According to Reprieve, Saudi Arabia has one of the highest death penalty rates in the world: The kingdom has executed at least 104 people this year, primarily by beheading. Last year, Saudi Arabia also made headlines for crucifying a man accused of attempted rape, theft and murder.

The kingdom has recently come under intense scrutiny for its treatment of dissidents. Most notably, the government assassinated and dismembered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Under Mohammed bin Salman, who became Crown Prince in 2017 and is believed to have ordered Khashoggi’s assassination, executions have at least doubled.

Cover: Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, smiles as he attends the Future Investment Initiative conference, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018 (AP Photo/Amr Nabil).

This article originally appeared on VICE News US.