Any moment now, authorities in Saudi Arabia are set to carry out the execution of a social activist who was only 17 years old at the time of his alleged offenses.
The chosen method of execution is shocking in its brutality: by beheading and crucifixion. Equally troubling are the crimes Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr, now 21, is accused of committing: "taking part in demonstrations against the government," "explaining how to give first aid to protesters," and "using his Blackberry to invite others to join him," to name a few, according to the human rights group Reprieve, which has campaigned for his release.
All appeals against his execution have been exhausted; it's just a matter of King Salman ratifying the death sentence.
This is appalling to us—to the western world—but for those in the region and those in al-Nimr's family, it is familiar. His uncle Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric in eastern Saudia Arabia, is also facing an imminent death sentence on charges of "waging a war on God" during those same protests. The Guardian described his uncle as the figure that had "taken the lead" during the Shia uprising that took place in Saudi in 2011 and 2012, during the time of the Arab Spring.
In a final effort to save young al-Nimr's life, this week the United Nations Office of the Commission of Human Rights issued a last-minute plea to spare his life.
"Any judgment imposing the death penalty upon persons who were children at the time of the offence , and their execution, are incompatible with Saudi Arabia’s international obligations,” read the statement, adding that it considered al Nimr's trial to be unfair. “Mr. al-Nimr did not receive a fair trial and his lawyer was not allowed to properly assist him and was prevented from accessing the case file.”
The al-Nimr family comes from eastern Saudi, where most of the nation's Shias live in an otherwise Sunni majority nation. Shias account for about 10 to 15% of the population, and have long alleged discrimination in education and seeking government work. The Saudi monarchy is staunchly Sunni, using a strict interpretation of Islam called Wahabbism. The minority Shias, concentrated in the east, are often portrayed as heretics by the state, or even worse: agents of Iran, the region's major Shia power with which Saudi is forever waging a war of influence against.
"Ali's family allege that his connection to Sheikh al-Nimr is the real reason for the case, as well as the ongoing crackdown against Shia activists in the east of the country, which has gone largely unreported due to heavy restrictions on both the local and international media in Saudi Arabia," reported the International Business Times. Anti-Shia sentiment in the region came to a head in May, when a Shia mosque was hit by a suicide bomb in the al-Nimr family's hometown, killing 21. ISIS claimed responsibility.
Complicating the matter is the fact that just last week, Saudi was chosen to head a panel of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The move immediately sparked an international indignation, considering their treatment of dissidents.
When pressed by a reporter about the United States' reaction to the appointment in light of al-Nimr's impending execution, a senior U.S. State Department official said of the move: "We would welcome it. We're close allies."
So far this year, Saudi has already executed 134 people, mostly by beheading. That's 44 more than the entire total for last year, the United Nations statement noted.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.