Ali Mohammed Nimr was 17 when he was arrested without warrant by police in 2012 for taking part in an "Arab Spring" protest against the Saudi government.
The nephew of a prominent government critic, Nimr was held without charge for two years at a prison in Dammam in the kingdom's Eastern Province. Amnesty International charged in a report last month that he was tortured into confessing to taking part in the illegal protest, attacking security forces, possessing a machine gun and committing armed robbery.
Now Saudi authorities reportedly plan to behead the young man and display his remains in public. The sentence has ignited an international uproar by human rights defenders and exposed the kingdom to fresh criticism that it violates the principles it pledged to uphold as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Nimr was sentenced to death by a special counter-terrorism court 17 months ago, and the judgment was upheld on appeal and confirmed by the Supreme Court this year without the defendant's knowledge or that of his lawyer, according to the London-based human rights legal foundation Reprieve.
"Ali al-Nimr has been through the most horrifying ordeal at the hands of the Saudi government. He was arrested as a juvenile, tortured into a bogus 'confession,' put through a mockery of a trial, and sentenced to 'crucifixion,' in a blatant attempt to make an example of him," said Maya Foa, Reprieve's death penalty team chief.
A second case of a juvenile offender facing execution in Saudi Arabia, Dawoud Marhoon, was reported by Reprieve on Tuesday. Also 17 at the time of his participation in prohibited pro-reform demonstrations, Marhoon reportedly confessed to capital crimes after being held in solitary confinement and prevented from consulting with an attorney, the rights group said.
Nimr was allowed a visit by his family in late September and expressed hope of escaping execution.
"I have faith and I live with hope," Reprieve quoted him as telling his family. "If things change [with my sentence], I will thank God. And if not, I lived happily with my hope."
The sentence of death by beheading and what's been widely called the "crucifixion" of his headless remains in public can be carried out at any time unless King Salman intervenes, Reprieve noted.
Saudi Arabia is among the world's most active imposers of capital punishment, having executed at least 134 people so far this year, human rights agencies who monitor the practice report. The executions are often carried out in public, with the gruesome results of beheadings and stonings displayed at the scene as a message to other would-be offenders.
The kingdom's criminal justice system has come under fire by United Nations and independent rights advocates for failing to abide by international law and treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child that prohibits death sentences or life without parole for those accused of crimes committed while they were younger than 18.
Under hard-line sharia, or Islamic law, Saudi courts may impose the death penalty for murder, rape, false prophecy, blasphemy, witchcraft and sorcery, as well as actions against the kingdom considered to constitute treason or terrorism.
Riyadh's judicial track record exposed it to bitter denunciation as unfit to sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council when it was appointed to the Geneva-based body in 2013. Saudi Arabia was elevated to chair of the influential appointments committee last month, prompting fresh outcries of hypocrisy and vote buying in the secretive election.
"It is scandalous that the U.N. chose a country that has beheaded more people this year than ISIS [Islamic State] to be head of a key human rights panel," UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer said after the Sept. 17 election of Saudi Ambassador Faisal Trad to head the office responsible for appointing investigators and special rapporteurs. "Petro-dollars and politics have trumped human rights."
Neuer, whose nongovernmental watchdog group monitors U.N. agencies, said Saudi Arabia has "arguably the worst record in the world when it comes to religious freedom and women's rights."
The kingdom's emergence as head of the committee that makes crucial appointments "underscores the credibility deficit of a human rights council that already counts Russia, Cuba, China, Qatar and Venezuela among its elected members."
The anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks recently released diplomatic cables that purport to show Britain collaborated with Saudi Arabia when both were seeking appointment to the rights council in 2013.
The U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial and arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, and Benyam Mezmur, head of the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, were among a group of rights experts who jointly appealed to Saudi Arabia in late September to halt Nimr's execution and provide him a fair retrial. The group's letter cited the allegations of forced confession and mistreatment of a juvenile as "incompatible with Saudi Arabia's international obligations."
"International law, accepted as binding by Saudi Arabia, provides that capital punishment may only be imposed following trials that comply with the most stringent requirements of fair trial and due process, or could otherwise be considered an arbitrary execution," the rights advocates wrote.
There has been no official response from the Saudi government, nor from the official Saudi Press Agency.
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