The son of a senior Shia cleric executed by Saudi Arabia has challenged David Cameron to speak out about what he called the murder of his father, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the death sentence that hangs over his cousin, Ali al-Nimr.
Sheikh Nimr was beheaded on 2 January along with 46 others. Nearly all were alleged to be members of al-Qaeda. The cleric was one of four Shia men from the country’s restive Eastern Province who were executed for allegedly plotting the overthrow of the government. Ali al-Nimr, a juvenile when he was arrested, and two other young Shia, also juveniles, face being beheaded at any time.
Mohammed al-Nimr, 29, spoke to The Independent on Sunday from Indianapolis where he moved five years ago to study mechanical engineering at the University of Indiana. “The UK,” he said “has an option either to stay with this regime or go to a better place and condemn these barbaric acts.”
10 examples of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses
10 examples of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses
In October 2014, three lawyers, Dr Abdulrahman al-Subaihi, Bander al-Nogaithan and Abdulrahman al-Rumaih , were sentenced to up to eight years in prison for using Twitter to criticize the Ministry of Justice.
In March 2015, Yemen’s Sunni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was forced into exile after a Shia-led insurgency. A Saudi Arabia-led coalition has responded with air strikes in order to reinstate Mr Hadi. It has since been accused of committing war crimes in the country.
Women who supported the Women2Drive campaign, launched in 2011 to challenge the ban on women driving vehicles, faced harassment and intimidation by the authorities. The government warned that women drivers would face arrest.
Members of the Kingdom’s Shia minority, most of whom live in the oil-rich Eastern Province, continue to face discrimination that limits their access to government services and employment. Activists have received death sentences or long prison terms for their alleged participation in protests in 2011 and 2012.
All public gatherings are prohibited under an order issued by the Interior Ministry in 2011. Those defy the ban face arrest, prosecution and imprisonment on charges such as “inciting people against the authorities”.
In March 2014, the Interior Ministry stated that authorities had deported over 370,000 foreign migrants and that 18,000 others were in detention. Thousands of workers were returned to Somalia and other states where they were at risk of human rights abuses, with large numbers also returned to Yemen, in order to open more jobs to Saudi Arabians. Many migrants reported that prior to their deportation they had been packed into overcrowded makeshift detention facilities where they received little food and water and were abused by guards.
The Saudi Arabian authorities continue to deny access to independent human rights organisations like Amnesty International, and they have been known to take punitive action, including through the courts, against activists and family members of victims who contact Amnesty.
Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison for using his liberal blog to criticise Saudi Arabia’s clerics. He has already received 50 lashes, which have reportedly left him in poor health.
Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Dawood al-Marhoon was arrested aged 17 for participating in an anti-government protest. After refusing to spy on his fellow protestors, he was tortured and forced to sign a blank document that would later contain his ‘confession’. At Dawood’s trial, the prosecution requested death by crucifixion while refusing him a lawyer.
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr was arrested in 2012 aged either 16 or 17 for participating in protests during the Arab spring. His sentence includes beheading and crucifixion. The international community has spoken out against the punishment and has called on Saudi Arabia to stop. He is the nephew of a prominent government dissident.
He urged the Prime Minister to intervene with the Saudis to save his cousin. “I say to you, Mr Cameron, that if you as a British citizen value freedom and if you value human life, then please imagine Ali as your son and ask yourself what would you do?”
Fearing for his own safety, Mr Nimr has not returned to Saudi Arabia for nearly two years. His uncle, the sheikh’s brother, was detained on the day the death sentence was handed down in 2014 for tweeting about it. Mr Nimr said that the execution of his father and the continuing threat to his cousin have had a devastating impact on the family.
In 2013, one year into his father’s incarceration, his mother died while receiving treatment at a hospital in New York. “It is not easy at all. We are doing our best to save Ali and we live in hope that one day he will be free,” he said.
Exacerbating their grief is the fact the Nimr al-Nimr’s body has not been returned to the family for burial. The Saudi authorities have said that all those executed were buried together in an unknown place according to Muslim practice. “There is no doctrine in Islam that would say do not return the body,” his son said. “We have the right to a proper burial.”
The family does not know what was done to his father before he was executed. In the harsh Wahhabist version of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, the condemned can have hands or feet cut off before beheading. “The world should know what a brutal and barbaric regime this is.”
He described his father as an advocate of non-violent change. “He was a man who would not accept oppression or tolerate any tyrant, but he always spoke about the peaceful way to demand rights.”
In a memo released by the Saudi embassy in London shortly after the executions, Nimr al-Nimr was described as having direct involvement in terrorist activities. The memo claimed the cleric was “involved in incitement, planning terrorist attacks, arming militants, and was apprehended following a gunfight with security officials”.
Mohammed al-Nimr rejects all those charges. He says there is not a single piece of evidence to prove the allegations. “Bring one proof, one piece of evidence to show that he was armed or that he was violent, just one. They cannot.”
Sheikh Nimr had been a long-time critic of the ruling House of Saud. He had repeatedly called for elections and an end to discrimination against the Shia. His popularity soared during the Arab Spring, and he condemned the Saudi-led invasion of neighbouring Bahrain that helped crush a largely Shia-led protest calling for democratic reform there.
The cleric’s arrest in 2012 led to massive street protests as thousands came out in the Eastern Province to demand his release. Ignoring the protests, the Saudi Specialised Criminal Court, which was established in 2008 to deal with terror suspects and human rights activists, sentenced him to death in October 2014.
It was a decision that Amnesty International described as “part of a campaign by the authorities in Saudi Arabia to crush all dissent, including those [activists] defending the rights of the Kingdom’s Shia Muslim community”.
Mohammed al-Nimr says his father’s only crime was to call for freedom and humanity. “He told the people that ‘the government wants you to be violent so they can have a legitimate cause to kill you, but the loud roar of words is mightier than the sound of bullets’.”
An only son, he remembers his father as one who took him for morning prayers just before sunrise and how after prayers they would walk through the palm groves in their hometown of Qatif. “He would put aside politics and his role as a cleric and we would discuss matters related to me and things I needed advice on. He was a father to me.”
Mr Nimr is fearful that if he returns to Saudi Arabia he will be arrested, but he is determined to carry on fighting for the sake of his father and to save his cousin’s life.
“It is a crime and one day I will prove it in a court of law – and before the whole world – that whoever was involved will get the justice they deserve for the crimes they have committed.”