The only thing stopping Ali al-Nimr being publicly beheaded and crucified in Saudi Arabia is the signature of King Salman bin Abdulaziz
The father of a young Saudi man sentenced to death by beheading and crucifixion has told Middle East Eye that he fears the king may imminently sign off on his son's execution.
Twenty-year-old Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr was convicted of sedition and rioting – among other charges – in 2014 and sentenced to death.
He was arrested in 2012 after having taken part in Arab Spring inspired protests the previous year in eastern Saudi Arabia, where the country’s Shia minority are concentrated and complain of long-established government discrimination.
Nimr has hit the headlines in recent days, after controversial American comedian Bill Maher referred to his case on Twitter.
Maher, who is well known for his animosity to Islam, suggested people should direct their anger toward Nimr’s potential execution rather than at police in Texas who arrested a 14-year-old Muslim boy after his teacher mistook his homemade clock for a bomb.
The upsurge in international support for Nimr’s case, which has seen his name mentioned over 15,000 times in English on Twitter this week, has not reassured the 20-year-old’s family, who fear he may be crucified and his body left to rot in public by local authorities.
“King [Salman] must sign off on the sentence for it to go ahead,” Mohamed al-Nimr told MEE on Friday. “I fear that there are negative influences around the king, including in the Interior Ministry, people with a Salafi mindset that will convince the king to sign.”
The king’s signature is the last remaining hurdle to the execution being carried out. The high court has approved the death sentence, which means 13 judges have signed off on it. There are no avenues of appeal left and the family will not be informed if or when the execution is carried out.
“If the sentence is carried out, we don’t know when it will be,” Nimr said. “Nobody is informed of these things. The usual thing is to hear on the television or radio of a statement that the death sentence has been done against such and such a person.”
Saudi Arabia has executed 133 locals and foreigners this year, according to an AFP tally, compared with 87 last year.
Authorities may be put off from executing Ali, however, because of the reaction on the streets of the Eastern Province, which would explode with anger according to the young man’s father.
“[If Ali is executed] there will be an uncontrollable reaction on the streets,” Nimr said. “We don’t hope for this reaction, and we don’t want it, and nor do we support or encourage it, but we won’t be able to stop it. There will be a wave of rage.
“The government has to be prepared to deal with it.”
The Shia community of Saudi Arabia – which makes up around 10 to 15 percent of the country’s 29 million people – have long complained of government discrimination, particularly in areas of employment and education.
Private television channels have hosted speakers who express hatred of the country’s Shia community.
“We’ll come to your areas and eat you alive,” Khaled al-Ghamidi, a local journalist, said on Wesal TV in January 2013. Wesal TV has since had its offices shut down after accusations it was spreading sectarianism.
Mohamed al-Nimr told MEE that he believes that “there are people [in Saudi Arabia] who benefit from the schism that has been created between the Shia and their government. The Shia in Saudi want to solve their problems using peaceful means. But there are people, extremists, who oppose this.”
Protests have largely petered out in the Eastern Province since 2011, although from time to time confrontations happen between local residents and security forces. The Arab Spring-inspired uprising saw around 1,000 people arrested, hundreds of whom remain behind bars.
Authorities have repeatedly said they will not tolerate sectarianism in the country. They have also defended their actions in dealing with the Eastern Province protests – in which dozens of protesters and security forces have been killed – by arguing that they have faced an armed uprising.
The leader of the protest movement, firebrand cleric Sheikh Nimr a-Nimr – Ali’s uncle – has also been sentenced to death for his role in the demonstrations and his brother Mohamed said he believes his son was arrested “to shame” the family.
On Friday Mohamed and his wife were granted permission to visit Ali in prison for the religious holiday of Eid al-Adha. His father said Ali was “overcome by happiness” at seeing his family.
It was a rare visit for the family, who last saw Ali nearly two months ago, although he is granted a weekly telephone call by prison authorities.
Mohamed said prison has been hard on his son, who has been detained for over three years, since February 2012.
“Ali has been deprived of his family, deprived of his childhood and his youth, deprived of years of study,” he said.
He is kept in one room, 24 hours a day, with between four and six other prisoners. He is not allowed out for exercise, except during Ramadan, when prison authorities gave him permission to take part in sports matches between prisoners.
The United States, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, has expressed “deep concern” over the impending death sentence and his father has said international pressure could be the only thing that saves his son’s life.
“The Western world says it cares a lot about human rights,” he said. “This is a human rights case, there is no doubt about that. Ali was a child on the day he was arrested. The charges brought against him are incorrect. Even if they weren’t, he was a child! How can he receive the death penalty?”
“The US government could explain [to the Saudi government] the danger of carrying out this sentence, that this would further heighten tension and add to a deteriorating security situation.”
The United Nations has called for Saudi Arabia to cancel Ali’s execution order and grant the young man a retrial. The original trial was carried out in secret and the conviction was based on a forced confession given by Ali under torture, his father alleged.
Despite problems with the original trial, Mohamed said he believed there is a chance for fair trial standards to be met in Saudi Arabia.
“I’m sure that if the proper procedures were followed it would be possible to have a fair trial in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “If the trial is open and public it could be fair.”
Saudi authorities have not commented specifically on the case.
Mary Atkinson contributed to this report.