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Activists campaign to stop Saudi youth's crucifixion as kingdom heads UN rights panel

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Young Ali Mohammed Al-Nimr. Facebook

Saudi Arabia has dismissed the final appeal of a 21-year old man due to be beheaded and crucified for taking part in anti-government protests even though he was a minor at the time. The case is one of several that has led to criticism of the choice of Saudi Arabia to chair a key UN human rights panel.


Ali Mohammed Al-Nimr who was 17 and in high school when he was arrested in 2012 for joining pro-reform protests in Qatif in the east of the kingdom.

The Saudi authorities have accused the 21-year-old of possessing firearms and using his Blackberry smartphone to support pro-democracy demonstrations.

Al-Nimr, a member of the Shia-Muslim minority in the Sunni-ruled kingdom, was initially held at a juvenile offenders' facility, where, according to rights groups, he was tortured and forced to sign a confession.

In a behind-closed-doors hearing a court sentenced him to death by crucifixion. 

His appeal, also held in secret, was dismissed this week.

This means, Al-Nimr could be beheaded and then crucified at any moment without his family being notified in advance.

Several rights groups are hoping he might be pardoned by Saudi Arabia's King Salman and Al Nimr’s father appealed to him on Wednesday to spare his life.

“The problem is that everything is done in secret,” Zena Esia, from the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights, told RFI. “There’s no transparency in the process. It could be that his papers have already been signed by the king for the execution to go ahead. We have no way of knowing what is happening… his family is not informed, nobody is. There’s a lot of pressure now from the international community, whether they listen is a different story.”

Al-Nimr’s execution could be politically motivated, according to the International Business Times explains. He is the nephew of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, an opponent of the Saudi regime, who has also been sentenced to death.

The death sentences are not the first passed on people taking part in the 2012 Arab Spring protests.

“By having such severe sentences against human rights activists what we believe Saudi Arabia is doing is sending out a message to the rest of the youth and the civil society saying ‘we do not tolerate activism',” says Zena Esia. “If you try, there is a very hefty penalty awaiting you. Ali is almost being used as an example for the rest.”

UN experts on Tuesday demanded that Saudi Arabia halt Al-Nimr's execution. But most Western governments have chosen to remain silent.

Riyadh is a major trading partner for countries such as France and the UK.

“We need the international community, and in particular countries that have strong trade ties to Saudi Arabia, to be really advocating on behalf of this young man because we are all responsible for what happens next,” Maya Foa, the Director of the Death Penalty section at British NGO Reprieve told RFI.

“Britain, for example, is currently bidding for a contract with prison services in Saudi Arabia. If they are going to contract with the same services that are responsible for killing a juvenile like Al-Nimr, then they should be held responsible for the complicity in capital punishment. They need to do much more to stop this execution going ahead.”

Rights groups were surprised to hear this week that Riyadh's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Faisal bin Hassan Trad, had been appointed chair of a Human Rights Council panel that selects top officials to monitor rights around the world.

“It’s a very surprising lack of thinking here but I think it’s an opportunity to speak out much more forcefully against this opposition and, as needs be, to reject that appointment,” says Maya Foa. “You cannot be seriously suggesting that someone could be elevated to that position while still perpetrating these gross human rights violations.”

Al-Nimr's is not the only case causing global outrage.

There has been an outcry over the case of Raif Badawi, a blogger who has been sentenced to 10 years in jail and 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam.

Saudi Arabia is described as having on of the highest execution rates in the world.

It executed 2,200 people between January 1985 and June 2015, nearly half of them foreigners and some were juvenile offenders and people with mental disabilities.