Five Birthdays in a Saudi Prison

“I spoke to Ali a few days ago and he said to me, ‘Don’t worry, mom. My birthday next year will be far more beautiful.'”—Nasrah al-Ahmed, Ali al-Nimr’s mother, in a letter published today by Amnesty International.

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Ali Mohammed al-Nimr turned 22 on Wednesday, December 21. It was his fifth birthday spent in prison. It was his third birthday on death row in Saudi Arabia.

There are two things about Ali al-Nimr that we know today (January 24, 2017), and they are the same two sad, maddening things that we know about Ali every day: He remains in prison in Saudi Arabia and he is awaiting his fate. He still phones his father and mother once a week, which his father reports to the world via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. He is continuing his college studies in prison.

Reprieve, the international human rights organization, created a page for people to sign a birthday card for Ali. This is the link: Wish Ali al-Nimr a Happy Birthday. In less than five days, the number of signatures on it has climbed to more than 16,100.

Ali al-Nimr is the young Saudi protester who faces a sentence of death by beheading followed by a posthumous crucifixion (the public display of his dead body). He was arrested in February 2012 at a protest during the Arab Spring movement.

The United States and Saudi Arabia are two of the 36 nations that remain on the planet that have capital punishment available as an official legal remedy. Saudi Arabia is one of the few that executes its convicts in public, and it is one of the very few that executes juvenile offenders, which Ali Mohamed al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher certainly were at the time of their arrests during the Arab Spring protests. This contravenes international agreements that defend the rights of children, agreements that Saudi Arabia signed.

The three were arrested for attending protests, were underage at the time of their arrests, were charged with crimes so numerous that the three of them acting together could not have committed the crimes any one of them was charged with singly, were tortured into signing false confessions, were not allowed to mount adequate defenses or even informed in time when their appeals would be heard, were each convicted, and were each sentenced to die.

Each remains on death row. Their families have been allowed to visit them regularly, contrary to some online rumors about their current conditions in prison. We do not know what is going to happen with them. In 2015, then-British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond reported that he had been assured by his counterparts in Saudi Arabia that Ali would not be executed. So far these assurances have been proved to have merit. Boris Johnson is the current Foreign Minister, he has not spoken directly about Ali al-Nimr.

The United States poisons those who have been convicted of murder, treason, or terrorism and who have been sentenced to die. Saudi Arabia uses beheading as its method of capital punishment, performs this punishment in public, and kills for crimes that most Western nations do not consider crimes: sorcery, apostasy (not believing in the correct deity), adultery. Further, Saudi Arabia has an instituted practice of crucifying the already dead body and displaying it in public. It also employs corporal punishment, something very few nations, including the United States, officially use. It flogs its citizens for reasons that include writing things its regime does not approve of. Raif Badawi and Ashraf Fayadh are but two examples of this policy of official cruelty meted out as punishment for thinking unapproved thoughts.

The current President-elect of the United States does not speak about human rights, not in this country and not abroad. He knows, better than I do, that not one vote was cast this year for any candidate in 2016 because he or she spoke about international human rights or risked criticizing one of our “staunchest” allies, Saudi Arabia.

Not many American politicians risk criticizing Saudi Arabia in part because our nations’ two economies are thoroughly entwined, and also because it is difficult even for those of us who are opposed to capital punishment to criticize another nation for having capital punishment, since we employ capital punishment in this nation. (Almost every Twitter troll who has criticized this web site for writing about Raif Badawi or Ali al-Nimr has written to “encourage” me to look at my own country.)

Since 2010, Saudi Arabia has cut deals to purchase more than $90 billion worth of fighter jets, missile defense systems, equipment, and expertise from American arms manufacturers. And these are merely the public deals. A $1.29 billion agreement to sell “air-to-ground munitions” (the four-word phrase for “bombs”) was announced in November 2015 to very little fanfare, as it was merely one more in a long series of such purchases.

We like to keep our customers happy. Our best customer, Saudi Arabia, was not happy about our participation in signing the multi-party, international treaty with Iran in 2015. (Why did all the Republican candidates for President decry that deal? Why does the President-elect denounce it? They all think that they have 90 billion answers to be against it.) Our customer wants us to see the world through its own bipolar lenses, itself versus Iran, and it wants our reassurances that we do.

Saudi Arabia wants us to leave it alone while it attempts to silence anyone in its nation who thinks freely and expresses it like Ali or Raif Badawi. Anyone who has the audacity to protest or even to write or speak. It has given us 90 billion reasons for us to ignore its official cruelty, after all.

The silent face at the top of this post—Ali al-Nimr—he has a voice: We are his voice. We are his voice until the day he is free. That day is coming, as Philip Hammond told the world in October 2015. That is why anyone who cares about human rights must use every available tool to attract attention to Ali’s case, arrested while underage for attending protests, convicted of violent acts, sentenced to die, and languishing for years in Saudi Arabia’s prison system. These are five birthdays he can not get back.

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Material from several of my columns about Ali al-Nimr was updated and included in this column.

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