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Michigan Faculty And Lawmakers Urge Reprieve Of Student In "Imminent" Saudi Execution

Amnesty International is warning that 14 young men are facing "imminent execution" for protest-related crimes in Saudi Arabia, including Mujtaba al-Sweikat, who was arrested in 2012 at the age of 17 while boarding a plane to attend an American university, as a well as a partially blind and deaf man who was reportedly tortured into giving a false confession. The men have already been moved to Riyadh, the site the Islamic kingdom's Deera Square (commonly called "Chop Chop Square").

Saudi Arabia typically gives no notice regarding precisely when executions are carried out - typically in the form beheading - though they are open to the public. The king's signature is all that's required before execution of the 14 men takes place after what Amnesty described as a "grossly unfair mass trial". July has been a particularly bloody month with over 26 executions in a 3 week period. International monitoring groups have estimated that over 60 executions have been carried out so far in 2017. In 2015 the kingdom reached a two decade high with over 157, and the following year executed 47 on a single day, including a prominent Shia cleric for leading anti-government protests.


Saudi executions by the numbers. Source: Statista

Various rights groups, as well as Michigan state lawmakers and teachers organizations, appealed to the White House to intervene, especially considering that one of the youngest facing execution, al-Sweikat, had been accepted as a student at Western Michigan University (WMU). Sweikat was arrested, along with other juveniles, for taking part in pro-Shia protests - all 14 are of part of Saudi Arabia's Shia minority. Since 2011 sporadic violence has erupted in the country's Shia-dominated eastern province of Qatif, resulting in increased nation-wide crackdowns on Shia political activity. A number of public beheadings since then have been for charges of spying on behalf of Iran. At least 34 members of Saudi Arabia's Shia community currently await the death penalty according to Amnesty International's figures.


Mujtaba al-Sweikat, arrested at 17, was set to attend WMU. Family photo, source: Reprieve.

Last week over 100 WMU faculty and administrators issued a public letter to President Trump requesting an urgent last minute intervention in al-Sweikat's case. The joint statement cited a UN finding:

We are shocked and alarmed to learn that one of our prospective students, Mujtaba al-Sweikat, faces imminent execution in Saudi Arabia... According to information provided to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, al-Sweikat was subjected to sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, cigarette burns, beaten to the point that his shoulder was broken and denied medical care.

Both Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson have remained silent on the issue, though it's not known what, if anything, has been conveyed through diplomatic channels. "America is a sovereign nation and our first priority is always the safety and security of our citizens," Trump stated during his May visit to the Saudi capital. "We are not here to lecture, we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership, based on shared interests and values--to pursue a better future for us all."


Saudi-US arms purchases. Source: Statista

British Prime Minister Theresa May has faced similar calls to put pressure on Saudi Arabia over its horrific human rights abuses. Both the US and UK have recently signed record breaking weapons deals with their longtime gulf ally and rarely speak publicly on issues related to Saudi domestic affairs. In January of this year, the human rights monitoring group Reprieve pointed to a trend of increasingly young prisoners facing the death penalty:

There are now real concerns that those protesters sentenced to death as children could be next in line to face the swordsman’s blade. Saudi Arabia's allies - including the US and UK - must not turn a blind eye to such atrocities and must urgently appeal to the Kingdom to change course.

Saudi Arabia routinely blows off the criticisms of private human rights groups and likely sees no need for reform, especially since it faces little serious pressure from Western governments. In April it was elected to the UN Women's Rights Commission to serve for the 2018-2022 term after keeping its seat on the Human Rights Council in a November re-election. This latest round of public beheadings, set to take place at any moment, demonstrates the continued absurdity and inconsistency of Washington's human rights rhetoric and the so-called 'international order'.