Saudi persecution of the al-Nimr family continues

Saudi Arabia
Human Rights
Middle East
There were protests around the world at the execution of Shi'a preacher Nimar al-Nimr early this year. © Toby Melville/Reuters
There were protests around the world at the execution of Shi'a preacher Nimr al-Nimr in 2016. ©Toby Melville/Reuters via Reuters Media Express

This week saw Saudi Arabia’s 100th execution of 2017. This gruesome culmination, which signals five executions on average each week according to Amnesty International, comes almost two years after the Kingdom’s most infamous mass execution, when 47 prisoners were killed on a single day through a mixture of beheading and firing squad.

One of those killed on that day was a prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr – a pro-democracy critic of the House of Saud, which runs Saudi Arabia as an absolute monarchy. The sheikh, who had repeatedly called for free elections, became increasingly popular amongst Saudi’s Shia minority in the wake of the Arab Spring. He urged the government to respect the rights of Shia Muslims – a dangerous demand to make in a culture led by Wahhabism, an ultraconservative movement within Sunni Islam that denounces the Shia faith.

‘If they can’t get the father they would get the son. If they can’t get the son, they would get the father’

He was sentenced to death on charges of being ‘involved in incitement, planning terrorist attacks, arming militants, and [he] was apprehended following a gunfight with security officials’. But the Saudi’s pursuit of the sheikh hasn’t ended with his execution – it has extended to his family-at-large, according to Al-Nimr’s son, Mohammed.

‘If they can’t get the father they would get the son. If they can’t get the son, they would get the father,’ Mohammed told New Internationalist.

The sheikh was one of four individuals from Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province executed for alleged terrorist offences. Mohammed said the Saudi authorities couldn’t present a shred of evidence for these charges. The injustice of the killing sent waves through Saudi Arabia and beyond, provoking a diplomatic crisis with Shia-ruled Iran. Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr had in fact encouraged protesters to fend off police bullets not with violence but with the ‘roar of the word.’

Many of the sheikh’s family live in his former hometown, Awamiya, in the east of the country. Government security forces ravaged this Shia-majority town from May until August this year, supposedly to eradicate so-called terrorists. The violence there has reportedly seen at least ‘12-25 people killed’.

The position of Awamiyah within Saudi Arabia. Part of an article on Mohammed al-Nimr on the persecution of his family
The position of Awamiyah within Saudi Arabia. Via OpenStreetMaps

The sheikh’s brother – Mohammed’s uncle – was shot while walking from his car to his doorstep on 12 June. His home is just behind Awamiya’s police station, which became a de facto ‘military base’ this summer, according to Mohammed, who left Saudi Arabia for his own safety.

‘The same day, before my uncle got shot, there was an explosion in one of their [the Saudi forces’] cars,’ Mohammed said. ‘After this incident they started firing at everyone in Awamiya.’

Saudi forces sealed off Awamiya at the end of July, three months into their razing of the town’s historic quarter – a demolition that was twice condemned by UN experts. In August, an escorted group of international journalists was allowed a rare glimpse of the situation in Awamiya. Several reported that it resembled a warzone.

The Saudi authorities allowed Mohammed’s uncle a hospital visit from his young son, Ali, who has been on death row since the age of 17.

Now in his early 20s, Ali faces beheading and crucifixion for having protested in the Arab Spring as a teenager. Many believe the fact that he is the sheikh’s nephew is the real reason.

‘It’s all a game for them,’ said Mohammed, explaining why the authorities had given permission for Ali to visit his wounded father in hospital. ‘They try to put political pressure on one person by another person. That’s their strategy to keep everyone quiet.’

Ali’s charges include explaining how to give first aid to protesters, and using his Blackberry to invite others along to the anti-government demonstrations. According to Reprieve, he was arrested without a warrant in 2012; held in pretrial detention for two years without contact with his lawyer; and tortured and forced to sign a false confession, which comprised the only evidence against him. Ali’s final appeal was held in secret without his knowledge.

‘They’re targeting everyone who dares speak out there’

Two other al-Nimr cousins were not able to escape government gunfire with their lives. Saudi forces on their way to raid an Awamiya farm killed two of Mohammed’s cousins in March 2017. The cousins were shot inside their vehicle when they found themselves facing Saudi SUVs travelling in the opposite direction along a narrow road, he said.

Just last month Saudi forces detained another of Mohammed’s cousins. The cousin and his family were staying in the nearby city of Dammam after their home in Awamiya was destroyed.

Sustained persecution is not unique to Mohammed’s family. ‘I would say they’re not only targeting my family, they’re targeting everyone who dares speak out there,’ he said. He continued, ‘They target specific people from every family to crack down on any kind of movement against them.’

‘If you look out of the window [in Awamiya] and they notice you... they would fire at you, because they’re afraid that you’d videotape them or something,’ Mohammed claimed of the siege conditions this summer. ‘They don't want any evidence to get out.’

Awamiya’s residents and activists have shared reports of Saudi forces’ use of firearms against civilians, as well as enforced evictions and destruction of homes. The targeting of the al-Nimr family is just one strand of a systematic discrimination against Shia citizens.

Britain’s arms sales and training to the Kingdom must be suspended until the human rights abuses in Awamiya are properly investigated. The UK Government has made no statements on the situation and refused to answer a journalist’s questions on whether there were any investigations into the use of British equipment there.

In two years, the UK has supplied Saudi Arabia with over £6bn worth of arms. To what end?

Sophie Baggott is Policy and Research Associate at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy

Thumbnail image: Toby Melville/Reuters via Reuters Media Express

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