Sophie Baggott is a London-based journalist working in human rights. She is currently investigating abuses in Saudi Arabia.


Sophie Baggott is a London-based journalist working in human rights. She is currently investigating abuses in Saudi Arabia.

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Sophie Baggott

Saudi persecution of the al-Nimr family continues

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

A Bahraini's interminable trial for tweeting


Nabeel Rajab on the day of his release from detention on bail, on November 2, 2014 in Manama, Bahrain. © Ahmed Al-Fardan

Bahraini human rights defender Nabeel Rajab was arrested 365 days ago for tweets against the war in Yemen, and his 13th hearing of his endless trial is tomorrow, writes Sophie Baggott.

It is exactly 365 days today: for a whole year Bahraini human rights defender Nabeel Rajab has been held in pre-trial detention in his country. After months in solitary confinement, he was hospitalized in April 2017, and his detention continues in the Ministry of Interior’s medical facility.

Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) and father of two, faces up to 18 years in prison simply for two separate trials: one for some tweets about the Saudi-led war in Yemen, the other simply for speaking to journalists – a trial which has been postponed eight times, the last one in May.

Rajab’s human rights work is internationally recognized. However, Bahraini authorities have incarcerated him repeatedly. In 2012, Rajab was sentenced to three years in prison for protest-related charges, and served two years of imprisonment after an appeal reduced the term. In 2014, comedian Stephen Colbert asked the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Ken Roth, who would be the next Nelson Mandela. Roth named Nabeel Rajab, alongside the Chinese dissident writer Liu Xiaobo.

The New York Times has published several letters written by Rajab from prison. In May, on the NYT’s front page, he reached out to the US in his latest piece:

‘For my part, I will not stand idly by. I urge Americans not to do so, either. They must all call for an end to the Trump administration’s unconditional support for my country’s misdeeds at home and abroad.’

Days later, President Trump met Bahrain’s King Hamad and told the royal that there ‘won’t be strain’ with his administration. Two days passed, then the Bahraini government launched their deadliest raid in years to repress a peaceful sit-in around the home of leading Shia cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim in Duraz village. In June 2016, the government decided to revoke the citizenship of Isa Qassim, and demonstrators have organized peaceful sit-ins in response. The authorities had already blockaded the village of Duraz. Police used excessive violence; security forces arrested 286 people and left five dead.

Since Rajab’s arrest on 13 June 2016, organizations worldwide have called for Bahrain to drop his charges. In May 2017, the UN’s top anti-torture experts said the state party should ‘release from detention’ Rajab and other individuals held in prison for human rights activism or journalism. The UN Committee Against Torture published concerns that Rajab’s reported nine months of solitary confinement and inadequate medical care may amount to torture.

Twelve months of police custody have seen a dramatic deterioration in Rajab’s health. In early April the 52-year-old human rights defender had to undergo surgery for bleeding ulcers. Despite medical advice that he should remain in hospital, Rajab was discharged back into police custody and had to be readmitted days later.

Across his year-long detention Rajab has undergone two operations, suffered two bouts of heart palpitations requiring emergency medical care, and developed depression as well as a low white blood cell count, reported Human Rights Watch. His wife Sumaya revealed her ‘extreme worries’ about his worsening health.

‘Nabeel never suffered heart problems before. My husband is a human rights defender and does not deserve this treatment’, she said.

Bahrain signed the UN Convention Against Torture in 1998, yet the UN Committee Against Torture described torture as ‘widespread’ in the country. In Rajab’s most recent NYT piece he spoke not only of the human rights violations inflicted on him, but also the suffering of Yemeni people:

‘I’m recovering from a painful surgical procedure, yet the authorities have made every part of my detention as difficult as possible. My lawyers have been obstructed from providing me the best possible defense. But what I have endured is a small fraction of what the people of Yemen have suffered, largely because of the military intervention of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and their allies.’

Rajab faces three years in prison for ‘speaking to journalists’, having confirmed to news outlets that Bahrain bars the entry of journalists and NGOs. Of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, Bahrain ranks 164th. This month the country’s only independent newspaper, Al-Wasat, was suspended indefinitely, while Bahraini journalist Nazeeha Saeed faces a fine of up to €2,400 ($2,700). Saeed is accused of working as a foreign correspondent without authorisation, since the information ministry refused to renew her accreditation last year.

Besides this, Rajab may be sentenced to 15 years in prison for tweeting anti-war messages and exposing torture in Bahraini prisons. His charges include ‘spreading rumours in wartime’, ‘insulting a neighbouring country’ and ‘insulting a statutory body’.

Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy’s director of advocacy, Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, said, ‘Bahrain’s punishment of critics of torture would not happen without the green-light from its allies Washington and London. Nabeel Rajab must be freed if Bahrain is to respect its international obligations.’

‘As we mark a year since Nabeel's arrest, he has proven to be a voice that cannot be silenced nor broken. Every minute he spends in prison shames Bahrain's rulers and their western allies.’

Today, on the one-year anniversary of Rajab’s arrest, join human rights defenders across the globe in a campaign calling for his freedom through Facebook or Twitter.

Sophie Baggott is a freelance journalist and London bureau intern at Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières RSF).

A very British inheritance: the ‘Othering’ tendency


Britain's PM Theresa May gives her speech on the final day of the annual Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, on 5 October 2016. © REUTERS/Dareen Staples

A ‘need to keep the empire intact’ triggered Hadrian’s Wall in AD112. Nearly 2,000 years later, the UK is keeping up this nationalistic legacy by funding the masonry at Calais.

Our ancestors were keen on defining the ‘Other’. Ancient literature often drew clear dividing lines between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’; Hadrian’s Wall was explicit in its mission to ‘separate Romans from the barbarians’. It looks like the tendency caught on.

Modern day Britain saw an ominously xenophobic streak through Brexit’s approach and aftermath. Just yesterday, Theresa May opened the door to resentful, undisguised nationalism saying, ‘If you’re a citizen of the world, you’re really a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.’

Now, climactically, our very own wall is in construction.

The government announced its plan to build a 13ft-high 'Great Wall of Calais' last month as a tool to stop asylum seekers reaching the UK. Building began on 20 September and continues against the wishes of the port's conservative mayor, Natacha Bouchart. Her concerns – that it would risk lives and aggravate the locals' living environment of razor-wire and fencing – have fallen on deaf ears, since this week the local administration overruled her injunction trying to halt the project.

Migrants pass by a road sign as they leave the northern area of the camp called the 'Jungle' in Calais.

If President Hollande is serious about relocating all refugees at the port town to elsewhere in France, why spend months and money building this wall? While no doubt puffing out a few flag-waving Brits’ chests, the venture has deflated the Treasury’s chest by a reported £1.9 million.

And the more walls going up, the more millennials feeling down. Plenty of surveys suggest unprecedented levels of despair, after all. We know these mounting barriers will do nothing to solve the continents-wide crisis of people fleeing conflict, poverty and whatever other hells they need to leave behind. We know it’ll fail even in its own narrow-minded aim to block out those seeking asylum.

Yet for many it is a tick next to the government’s to-do list box for addressing its view of the refugee problem. Each brick reaffirms the British tradition of calmly carrying on – without troubling oneself about our scapegoats or ‘barbarians’.

The population of the Calais 'Jungle' rose 60 per cent since May. But president Hollande announced plans to dismantle the camp, and the UK started building a wall to keep asylum seekers away.

I learned about Hadrian and his wall during my Classics degree. Before university my classical education amounted to a few favourite myths and ‘Gladiator’. My state school thought the degree covered music. Oxford taught me Latin from scratch and fed me insights into the era.

My four years at university felt like a new, wider way of seeing the world – and I never lost a sense of extreme good luck for having made it there. Many of my incredibly deserving friends hadn’t. I paid £12,000 for the privilege but last week saw this fee potentially swelling to £37,000.

I had hoped such walls – in the metaphorical sense – were starting to fall into disrepair. Instead they seem to be piling up. Universities mustn’t settle back into a place strictly for ‘Us’ – the ones who write the books, not us universally. I strained myself from a young age to get there, but for £37,000? I couldn’t.

Of course, Calais and Oxford are worlds apart. I’ve been to the refugee camp at Calais twice and the desperation there is beyond belief. Light-years lie between the urgency and scale of these respective barriers to be quashed.

Recently, though, I was mulling this over with professor Tim Whitmarsh, whose words almost felt broad enough for both worlds: ‘Those who believe in democracy should be very wary of builders of walls, both literal and figurative,’ he commented. ‘Ancient Greek democracies were founded on the idea of shared public space.

‘Walls, by their very nature, create and enforce divisions, whether in Calais, Belfast, Jerusalem or Berlin.’

The near-tribal temperament of some corners in 21st century Britain is no secret. ‘Us’. ‘Them’. I was studying ancient history, I had thought, while researching ‘Othering’ in the library. Zero marks. There was nothing ancient about these attitudes. What I saw was a tendency that’s making a full-blown comeback into politics, brick by brick by brick.

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