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Saudi Arabia: Ali al-Nimr, imprisoned as teen, released after nine years

Ali al-Nimr was condemned to death in 2014 but later had his sentence commuted to 10-years in prison
Picture of Ali al-Nimr shortly after his release from prison (Jaafar al-Nimr/Twitter)

Saudi Arabia has released from prison Ali al-Nimr, a protester whose arrest at age 17 and death sentence had provoked outcry internationally.

Nimr's uncle, Jaafar al-Nimr, posted a picture of his nephew on Twitter shortly after leaving prison.

"Ali al-Nimr to freedom...praise be to God for your safety," he wrote.

Nimr's father Mohammed also tweeted his thanks to friends and family members for supporting their struggle over the years.

He also thanked Saudi Arabia's King Salman for "the historic decision in April 2020, which ruled to stop issuing and implementing death sentences against minors".

Taha al-Hajji, a lawyer for the Nimr family and other political prisoners, told Middle East Eye that he welcomed Nimr's release and hoped for "similar news" for other political prisoners.

"Ali and his companions did not commit a sin that deserves punishment or a crime, and our main demand is to rehabilitate them and compensate them for the days of oppression, injustice and torture - but I cannot deny that this step is comforting," he said.

"Although it does not do them justice, because participating in demonstrations and expressing opinions is a right and not a crime to be punished."

Mass executions

Nimr was arrested in February 2012 during anti-government protests inspired by the Arab Spring.

A member of the kingdom's Shia Muslim minority, which has long been persecuted, the then-17-year-old is the nephew of influential cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

Nimr al-Nimr was executed in 2016, leading to a major international outcry and the Saudi embassy in Iran being torched.

Saudi authorities issued a death sentence against Ali al-Nimr in 2014 over allegations that included possessing a firearm and armed robbery, charges disputed by rights organisations.

Since then, the kingdom has carried out hundreds of executions, with 184 killed in 2019 alone, and dozens carried out in 2021 so far.

In April 2019, six young men sentenced to death for crimes committed as children were among those killed in a mass execution of 37 people.

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However, the kingdom announced the following year that it would abolish the death penalty for minors in the kingdom, stating that “no-one in Saudi Arabia will be executed for a crime committed as a minor”.

In March 2021, the kingdom then commuted death sentences for a number of child offenders, including Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoun and Abdullah al-Zaher.

"We are overjoyed that Ali has been released, but he should never have been sent to prison at all, as his only 'crime' was attending protests to demand democratic rights," Maya Foa, director of anti-death penalty charity Reprieve, said in statement.

Despite the kingdom's claims, there are still a number of child offenders facing the death penalty, with Saudi authorities confirming in April that those sentenced for hudud and qisas offences – defined by the kingdom as "wilful killing and wilful assault" – would still be eligible for execution.

In July, the European parliament passed a resolution condemning Saudi Arabia's use of the death penalty, particularly against child offenders.

The resolution, passed with an overwhelming majority, focused on the cases of Mustafa Hashem al-Darwish and Abdullah al-Howaiti.

Darwish, who was arrested in 2015, was executed in June over charges relating to protests in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province which he took part in when he was 17.

Hajji, Nimr's lawyer, said that Saudi Arabia's claim that it had ended child executions was an attempt to "whiten" its reputation, but unfortunately it did not go far enough.

"We wish safety to all, and we hope that Saudi Arabia will prove its seriousness and sincerity in stopping the killing of minors," he said.