[Update, January 3, 2016: Sheikh Nimr was executed by beheading and his body crucified on January 2, 2016, by the authorities in Saudi Arabia. He was one of 47 executed that day. The oppressed Shia population in Saudi Arabia is protesting; Iran, a majority Shia nation is officially outraged. The Sheikh was a soft-spoken leader of that population.
Below is a post from October 2015.]
His family says that he has calmly accepted his probable fate: Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr is due to be beheaded soon, possibly this week. A post from his Facebook account this morning confirmed that Sheikh Nimr was informed by his family (rather than by a judge in a hearing) yesterday that a court upheld his sentence. It said that he thanked them for the information.
Sheikh Nimr is the uncle of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, the young man who has also been sentenced to die by beheading because he was arrested at a protest. The fact that Ali was arrested while he was a juvenile and his outrageous sentence of beheading and subsequent crucifixion—the public display of his dead body—garnered worldwide condemnation and even statements from leaders in other nations that used Ali’s name specifically in requests that he be spared, that he be set free; that specificity was somewhat shocking because politicians usually are not so specific and they employ that watered-down phrase “human rights in general” when they want to signify displeasure with an ally’s torching of human rights in general but without risking consequences. Political leaders in the United Kingdom have risked consequences in speaking Ali’s name; none have done so in my country.
The public display of outrage specific to Ali’s case sparked a similarly rare display of Saudi anger specific to the outrage when the Saudi embassy in London released a statement that decried the public statements and even named Ali.
Sheikh Nimr spoke out against the Saudi monarchy in speeches attributed to him. He has demanded that elections be held. That much is known. He is an imam, the leader of a congregation, an important one, and he spoke out in favor of a political solution to certain problems; he called out for regional elections. Independent analysts have studied his speeches and sermons and reported that they found they lacked things like a call for violence. Some of the comments brought before the court as his could not even be attributed to him, according to Amnesty International.
Some background: He was arrested eight times for dissent between 2003 and 2008, and his sermons grew in popularity. When the “Arab Spring” protests swept through the Mideast in 2011, he went into hiding and then re-emerged, gave a speech, was arrested, and his arrest led to protests at which several demonstrators were killed. Ironically, one of the charges against him finds him responsible for those deaths even though he was already in custody.
In 2008, he met with U.S. officials, a Wikileaks publication reveals, and those officials found him to be “conciliatory.” Our officials wrote, “though he will always choose the
side of the people, this does not necessarily mean that he will always support all of the people’s actions, for example, violence. Religiously, al-Nimr said that he is first a Shi’a, then a Muslim, then a member of the Ahl al-Bayt (literally People of the House; the phrase refers to Muslims, Christians and Jews), and finally a member of humanity. He quickly followed by saying that politically, he is on the side of justice, wherever or with whomever it may preside.” (Of course, the fact that U.S. intelligence officials may find a controversial figure to be not very controversial at all does not automatically put a white hat on the person.)
In 2014, after two years in pre-trial detention, he was found guilty of crimes including “incitement of vandalism and sectarian strife, failing to obey or pledge allegiance to then-King Abdullah, calling for the collapse of the state and insulting relatives and companions of the Prophet Muhammad.” According to Amnesty International, he was also charged with “banditry” because security officers claimed that he had shot at them; no evidence supporting this or any other offense was supplied at trial.
The only bullet known to have been fired when he was arrested in 2012 landed in his spine when he was shot by the police; his right leg has been paralyzed since, and surgery to remove it has been denied him.
He was also frequently denied access to lawyers or even to the charges against him. According to the Associated Press yesterday, prosecutors pursued crucifixion as part of his sentence, but they lost that point; Sheikh Nimr is merely to be beheaded. However, according to the Guardian, he and the six others (including his nephew, Ali) are in fact still to be crucified after beheading.
Crucifixion is not a common means of treating a prisoner who has been sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia. Beheading someone and then displaying the body is reserved only for those who have committed the most heinous of crimes, like protest. Or call for elections.
Saudi Arabia has beheaded more than 100 individuals in 2015 and is set to more than double its 1995 record of 192 beheadings. (The nation does not execute via lethal injection or even hanging, and it does not conduct the punishments in private; it has executioners who do the terrible work in public.) This is a particularly blood-thirsty moment in its history. The crimes for which one is to be punished with death by public beheading in Saudi Arabia are believed to include adultery, armed robbery, apostasy, drug smuggling, kidnapping, rape, witchcraft, and sorcery. As Amnesty International reminds us, “Some of these so-called offences, such as apostasy, should not even be criminalized under international standards.” (Apostasy is also a crime for which Raif Badawi was tried and not convicted.)
As a citizen of the United States, I am aware that I have no say in the legal system or traditions of another country’s bureaucracy; I can only write this column to implore my government to at least say something to one of its allies in the name of human rights.
Further, this has nothing to do with one particular religion or even religion as an idea at all; all of the great faiths preach love and peace as often or as easily as they preach intolerance, but every single nation that has ever chosen to be a theocracy, or been forced to be a theocracy, whether Christian, Islamic, or Other, has in its history a bloody denial of human rights. Every single theocracy has chosen intolerance. (I first wrote a version of this sentence several months ago, and I stand by it. It has attracted the complaint that I am too polite about Islam, that it alone is blood-thirsty. Nonsense. No single religion, not even “Religion” as a concept, is the evil; bigotry is. I may think religion is nonsense, but I do not force anyone else to believe this, as that would be bigotry. The need to force others to believe is humanity at its worst. Every theocracy codifies in its laws the need to force others to believe. Thus, I believe in the freedom to worship, peacefully, as a part of freedom, as a human right, even while I am personally not a believer.)
Sheikh Nimr, a religious leader, might not like that an agnostic in New York State wants him pardoned by King Salman. Further, if he were put in political power, he might turn out to be a rampaging theocrat, too. There is as yet no way to know the answer to the second question, and I don’t care. Death by beheading is not a reply in an exchange of ideas.
Ali’s case attracted worldwide attention in part because it seems to have little to do with religion; it attracted attention because he was arrested while still a juvenile, for one thing, and because death by beheading as a punishment for protest strikes most free-thinking individuals as unjust in the extreme. Sheikh Nimr’s case is not a-religious, as he is, to be blunt, condemned to die because he is a Shia religious leader in a Sunni-ruled country; however, his freedom to protest injustice or to decry the absence of human rights, the threat to behead him for protesting, those are non-religious matters to me. It is a vitally important issue.
In an article published this afternoon, the International Business Times quotes Toby Matthiesen, author of The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent And Sectarianism, as pointing out that although Saudi Arabia may behead dozens of people a year, it has been decades since the kingdom has executed a political prisoner, yet the sectarian split is at such a low point right now that the possible executions of Sheikh Nimr and his nephew, Ali, may be popular for King Salman.
(Anyone who researches these stories on Twitter learns that Saudi Arabian citizens use their freedom to speak on behalf of beheading prisoners for dissent quite frequently.)
Asked “if the publicity that the Nimr case has attracted is positive for the uncle and nephew facing a horrific death, Matthiesen says it is,” according to the IBT. “In little over eight weeks, Ali Mohammed al-Nimr and Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr have become household names, with Ali’s father authoring opinion pieces in Newsweek, among others, and interviewed all over the world. The Nimrs have no tribal or familial links that would encourage the authorities to take mercy. Apart from the attention of the wider world, they are are totally alone. Matthiesen added: ‘Al-Nimr’s family are total outcasts. I think [the publicity] is their only hope.'”
This column is one writer’s small contribution toward that public outcry.
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