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Saudi Arabia executions: Qatif protester among dozens in imminent danger

A rights group says Saudi businessman Saud al-Faraj was sentenced to death over torture-coerced confessions
Saud al-Faraj, 42, protested in the 2011 anti-government uprisings in Qatif motivated to 'end injustices', says a rights group representing him (ESOHR)
Saud al-Faraj, 42, protested in the 2011 anti-government uprisings in Qatif motivated to 'end injustices', says a rights group representing him (ESOHR)

A Saudi Arabian man who was active in the 2011 anti-government protests in Qatif is at imminent risk of execution, a rights group has warned.

Saud Al-Faraj, 42, was convicted in June 2021 of participating in protests, running a terrorist cell and killing police officers among other charges. He was sentenced to death this October.

Faraj denies the charges and is appealing against his conviction.

In a 19-page handwritten defence seen by Middle East Eye, Faraj describes how he was held in solitary confinement for 630 days and repeatedly tortured for refusing to confess.

"I would not be able to list all the violations I faced by the officials,” Faraj writes in an undated letter written after he was charged. “I have never harmed anyone, and my clean criminal and moral records can attest to this."

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Many of the details in Faraj’s letter have been corroborated by a former inmate who shared a cell with him at Dammam Prison for seven months, but was recently freed.

The European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR), which represents Faraj, fears he could be executed at any time and believe there are dozens more on death row with him.

But it also worries that he may be swept up in a mass execution, a scenario ESOHR and other groups monitoring Saudi death row inmates are increasingly concerned about.

'Now we are seeing things worsening and indicators which are showing us that something bad is going to happen, but we don’t know the full extent of it. That is worrying'

- Zaki Sarraf, Reprieve

One reason, ESOHR states, is that cases of political prisoners which have been delayed for years are suddenly moving very quickly through the court system. It says it has documented more than 60 such cases in recent months, including those of at least 48 other people linked to the 2011 Qatif protests.

In March, the kingdom executed 81 people in one day, more than had been killed in the whole of 2021, just days before then-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Three more men were executed during Johnson's visit.

Last month, after a 21-month pause on the practice, Saudi authorities began executing inmates convicted of drug offences. Twenty men, mostly foreign nationals, were killed in a two-week period.

It wasn’t simply the quick succession of executions alone that shocked death row monitors, but also the fact that none of the men killed were on their radar.

“We had no idea about these cases which means they were arrested, tried, sentenced and executed in secrecy,” Zaki Sarraf, MENA caseworker for Reprieve, said.

In fact, said Sarraf, 69 of the 81 men killed in March were also unknown to Reprieve or ESOHR.

“Now we are seeing things worsening and indicators which are showing us that something bad is going to happen, but we don’t know the full extent of it. That is worrying.”

Taha al-Hajji, a Saudi lawyer and legal consultant with ESOHR, said: “All the indicators suggest that these executions will go ahead. We suspect that Saudi authorities want to group them together and wait for the right moment politically to carry them out.”

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to MEE’s request for comment.

Protests and prison

There had been sporadic protests in Qatif, a Shia-majority province in eastern Saudi Arabia, for years over accusations of widespread discrimination.

But in early 2011, as protests rumbled across the Arab world, demonstrations picked up once again in the province with protesters demanding the release of a group of men who had been held for years without trial.

The protesters’ demands expanded to include a wide set of grievances, many about economic disparity.

Saud al-Faraj, who ran a construction firm, was well-off financially, but became involved in the protests nonetheless, said Hajji.

“He deeply felt injustice, discrimination and oppression,” Hajji said. “His motive was to end the injustices.”

The protest movement was dispersed by the Saudi security forces who used live fire against protesters, leading to armed clashes and several deaths.

Destruction in the Qatif town of Awamiya in 2017 following unrest (AFP)
Destruction in the Qatif town of Awamiya in 2017 following unrest (AFP)

By late 2012, after the arrest of the movement's spiritual leader Nimr al-Nimr, the protests faded away and Faraj returned to running his business.

Hajji said around 1,500 people have been arrested in Qatif since 2011 in connection to protests and 80 of them have been executed since 2016, including Nimr.

In late 2019, Faraj says in his letter that he received a call from a man identifying himself as an officer from the General Directorate of Investigation (GDI), the kingdom’s secret police department.

During a meeting at a hotel in Dammam, the officer asked Faraj to take a job with the secret police, pretending to recruit people for military training in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon so they could then be arrested.

When Faraj refused, the officer warned him that he would face repercussions.

Weeks later, the GDI raided Faraj’s office in Qatif and took Faraj away in a blindfold and handcuffs.

At the police station, he could hear his wife and two-year-old daughter - who had been at the office during the raid - screaming for hours, he wrote in his letter.

“I could hear my wife pleading to them not to separate her from her daughter,” Faraj wrote. “My daughter could only articulate the word ‘Mama’ as she cried.”

Torture, recover, then repeat

For the next year and nine months, Faraj was held in solitary confinement, with no contact with the outside world, and unaware of what had happened to his wife and daughter.

He says he was regularly tortured, including beatings, electric shocks and sexual assault, as interrogators attempted to coerce him into confessing to crimes they dictated to him.

The wellbeing of his wife and daughter were dangled in front of him. At one point, authorities threatened to hold them as hostages. Two weeks into his arrest, they took him to a glass window overlooking a room where his wife was and threatened to rape her if Faraj refused to comply.

As Faraj continued to refuse, he was moved in and out of the hospital, recuperating for a couple of days after an interrogation session only to be returned for more torture.

Eventually, after 21 months in solitary, Faraj was put in a cell with other inmates, all of whom were foreigners and that’s where he met Zafar*.

“When I came into the room, he hugged me and he said, ‘You are my brother. Whatever you need, I will help you,’” Zafar told MEE.

Beatings and hunger strike

Zafar said the men were held in a small windowless room containing a toilet and a sink. The only book they were given over seven months was a Quran and they were offered 10 minutes outside, once a week.

With little to do, Zafar said Faraj helped him practise his Arabic, and the men told stories of their childhoods and their families. “If you sat with Saud, you would know him,” he said.

Faraj desperately missed horse riding. He raised horses and had competed in international races.

He also missed his wife and daughter. He was finally allowed to call them in May 2021. It was only then that they learned he was still alive, and he discovered that his wife had been released from prison after 19 days.

Faraj wrote a letter to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in November 2021 detailing all the abuse he had suffered in prison. After filing the complaint, guards retaliated against him, taking his pens and paper away to prevent him from writing further complaints.

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One day, nearly two years into his detention, he was offered a call home, Zafar said. But, he asked, could he ring at noon instead of 9am? His daughter would be at school, and he wanted to catch her later when she would be at home.

His cellmates watched as several prison guards dragged Faraj away. An hour later, he returned bleeding and unable to stand. “They threw him into our room like a football,” Zafar said. He was not referred to a doctor.

Unable to contact his family regularly or get medical care, Faraj went on hunger strike for seven days and was transferred to a hospital when his health deteriorated.

He agreed to stop his strike when prison authorities promised to change how they treated him, but in the end, the abuse continued.

Faraj suspected Zafar would be released from prison long before he would, if he ever was. So he had concentrated on telling him his story from start to finish. “I listened carefully because I knew I would get out and tell people,” Zafar said.

On the day Zafar left prison and was deported to his home country, the two men hugged. “I cried and he cried,” he said. “I said, ‘I will never forget you.’”

At home, Zafar said he is unable to enjoy the things he once loved. He was at a party recently and suddenly thought of Faraj and everything he witnessed in the prison.

“Those people are really oppressed, those people are really suffering,” he said. “They are not treating them like they are human.”

'License to execute'

Hajji, the lawyer with ESOHR, has defended many of the Saudi Arabians who protested in the kingdom in 2011. He left the kingdom in 2016 and has continued his work in Germany where he is now based.

Faraj’s case, he said, is an extreme one among the cases he’s worked on. “The torture he has faced was very severe and, at times, strange,” Hajji said, alluding to how Faraj had been left in the dark about his wife’s release for two years.

He said the state’s court case relied mostly on confessions that were coerced through torture, testimonies taken from other detainees who are also believed to have been tortured, and items the prosecution claims were confiscated from his property, including weapons and bomb materials. Faraj has denied owning any of the items purportedly seized.

As Hajji watches cases that have dragged suddenly move quickly through the courts and as executions over drug convictions have resumed, he has grown increasingly concerned for Faraj and others on death row.

“The executions recently have been insane. It’s scary,” he said. “Even though Saudi Arabia has said they will stop drug-related and minor executions, they have gone back on those lately.”

“It made no sense and has contradicted everything the state has said in recent years in its attempt to improve its image.”

Reprieve’s Sarraf said: “Saudi Arabia executes when the international attention fades away. It’s not good for MBS for people to be aware. So when they see that people have stopped talking - and maybe the international media outlets have taken a break - it gives them license to execute.”

*The name of the former inmate has been changed for his protection.

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