Sentenced to death last year, Sheikh Nimr is a political prisoner condemned for demanding the release of other prisoners and Saudi government reform.
A Bahraini anti-government protester holds up a picture of jailed Saudi Sheik Nimr al-Nimr during clashes with riot police in Sanabis, Bahrain, a suburb of the capital Manama, Wednesday night, Oct. 15, 2014. The outspoken and widely revered Shiite cleric was convicted Wednesday in Saudi Arabia of sedition and other charges and sentenced to death, raising fears of renewed unrest from his supporters in the kingdom and neighboring Bahrain.
WASHINGTON — Last week, Saudi officials announced the impending execution of Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a 53-year-old Shiite cleric sentenced to death last year. If the execution is carried out over calls against it coming from across the globe, Nimr will be beheaded and then his body will be publicly displayed, a process locally called “crucifixion.”
Nimr was condemned to death for “seeking ‘foreign meddling’ in the kingdom, ‘disobeying’ its rulers and taking up arms against the security forces” — accusations made by the government that pro-democracy activists say are unfounded claims to discredit the fight for freedom. The last charge likely stems from his arrest, when police accuse the cleric of exchanging gunfire during a chase — a charge denied by his family who claim he was unarmed. Police shot Nimr four times during his arrest.
Human rights advocates criticize the charges, saying Nimr was imprisoned for his support of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, criticism of the treatment of other Shiite Muslims by the country’s rulers, demanding the release of other political prisoners, and other accusations against the House of Saud.
Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr
It’s unclear when the death sentence could be carried out. BBC Arabic reported Nimr would be executed on Thursday, but as of Friday, no reports indicated he had been killed. Zack Beauchamp, writing for Vox, highlighted Saudi Arabia’s unpredictability in death penalty cases: “[T]he country has a habit of both postponing executions and carrying them out without very much warning.”
The announcement of Nimr’s execution renewed protests that began after his arrest and have continued ever since, especially in al-Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia, known for its strong sympathies to his positions. In April 2014, Princess Sahar, one of four imprisoned daughters of the late King Abdullah, linked her struggle to Nimr’s imprisonment, and called for revolution against the ruling government.
Now, Nimr’s death sentence has become an international issue, condemned by Reprieve and Amnesty International. Protesters took to the streets of al-Awamiyah, Nimr’s hometown, on Saturday to demand his release, chanting anti-government slogans. Solidarity rallies also occurred in Bahrain, whose oppressive royal family depends on Saudi military support to quell pro-Democracy protests, and the Iraqi city of Najaf.
“There are over 30,000 political prisoners in Saudi Arabia,” a protester told Iran’s PressTV on Thursday. “But with Sheik Nimr, he’s become the name of them, he’s become a representative of all the minorities, the oppressed people in Saudi Arabia.”
“A turning point”
A Bahraini protester holds a picture of jailed Saudi political dissident Nimr al-Nimr.
Nimr’s execution could also spell renewed risk for Ali Mohammed al-Nimr and Dawoud Hussain al-Marhoon, two other protesters arrested in 2012, when they were just 17 years old, and condemned to death on similar charges.
“Saudi Arabia’s wave of executions since the start of this year has provoked widespread disgust. But these killings, if they are allowed to go ahead, will mark a new low,” said Maya Foya, director of Reprieve’s death penalty team, in a post to the NGO’s website.
MintPress News spoke by phone with Ali Al-Ahmed, an expert on Saudi Arabia from the Institute for Gulf Affairs. He expressed the deep frustration of the region’s Shiite population:
“Our people have been very patient with the international community’s support for the Saudi monarchy and their hypocrisy,” he said. “So they have no right to tell us how we can act toward the Saudi monarchy if Sheik Nimr is killed.”
Regardless of Nimr’s fate, Saudi Arabia is likely to continue beheading those charged with crimes ranging from rape and drug trafficking to apostasy. In his Vox article, Zack Beauchamp reported that the country executed 90 people last year.
But, more than other political prisoners, Sheik Nimr al-Nimr’s death seems poised to renew unrest throughout a region already tense from the suppression of free speech and women’s liberty, and where repeated human rights abuses are supported by U.S. military might.
“You’d see huge protests, you’d see huge clashes,” predicted Al-Ahmed. “This would be a turning point.”