Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr

Sheikh Nimr is a Shia Sheikh and a critic of the Saudi Arabian government who was sentenced to death in 2014 for his role in the 2011 uprising.

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Still on screen: An unbelieved truth can hurt a man much more than a lie. It takes great courage to back truth unacceptable to our times. There's a punishment for it, and it's usually crucifixion.

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Narration: October, 2015. Protesters have gathered on Downing Street in London demanding Saudi Arabian authorities to halt the execution of Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr. David Cameron is under pressure to call on Riyadh to revoke death sentences handed to this prominent Saudi cleric. Al-Nimr, who led protests in Qatif during the so-called 'Arab Spring' in 2011, had been sentenced to death by Saudi Specialized Criminal Court on October 15, 2014. Now it has been revealed that his final appeal against his death sentence had been denied and he could be put to death at any time.

The image of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr with his distinctive grey beard and turban has adorned placards and banners during protests in eastern Saudi Arabia for over a decade, if not longer. Between 2003 and 2008, al-Nimr was jailed eight times for his involvement in protests and his fiery sermons against Saudi's rulers in Riyadh. As a main political player in the Eastern Province, al-Nimr began to gain popularity in the region particularly with young people as his words appealed to those disaffected by the general economic malaise experienced by Saudi Arabia's lower classes in al-Ahsa and al-Qatif districts where most of the 2.7 million Shia in Saudi Arabia live. But the so-called Arab Spring swept across the Middle East and North Africa in January 2011, Saudi Arabia's Shia Muslims saw their opportunity to seize the moment. So, in concert with protests inBahrain, Qatif became a hotbed of activism with increasingly significant demonstrations that rattled nerves in Riyadh. In response, the Saudi government repeatedly unleashed its security forces to violently suppress the demonstrations, resulting in a number ofdeaths. In the meanwhile, as a vocal supporter of the Qatif protests, al-Nimr gave a speech to position himself at the forefront of the protest movement. He was arrested in 2012 and in October 2014, Saudi Arabia's Specialized Criminal Court found him guilty of a host of vague charges including, “breaking allegiance to the ruler” and “encouraging, leading and participating in demonstrations.” That’s while in reality, he had remained peaceful during the protests without committing any crimes.

On October 25, 2015, al-Nimr's final appeal against his death sentence was denied. As is custom in Saudi Arabia, the authorities do not reveal dates of executions until after they have taken place. The execution warrant will be sent to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to be approved and then implemented. On the other hand, al-Nimr'snephew, Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr also had his appeal denied in September and could similarly soon faces his sentence of beheading followed by crucifixion. Saudi Arabia's reputation for gruesome punishments and harsh sentences had been well established long before these two cases hit headlines around the world. Amnesty International estimates that Saudi Arabia has executed 175 people in 2015 alone, while public flogging and the death penalty remain a relatively common sentence in this country. The Nimrs’ case was more highlighted by Jeremy Corbyn in his inaugural speech as Labour leader in September 2015.

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SOUNDBITE [English] Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Partyat UK: So for my first message to David Cameron, I say to him now a little message from our conference, I hope he’s listening – you never know: Intervene now personally with the Saudi Arabian regime to stop the beheading and crucifixion of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, who is threatened with the death penalty, for taking part in a demonstration at the age of 17. And while you’re about it, terminate that bid made by our Ministry of Justice’s to provide services for Saudi Arabia - which would be required to carry out the sentence that would be put down on Mohammed Ali al-Nimr.”

Narration: The publicity surrounding the case prompted Saudi Arabia to angrily call for the international community to desist from intervening in its judicial system. That’s while it is widely thought that Ali, now 21 but 17 in 2012, was arrested and sentenced because of his connection to Sheikh al-Nimr. Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the UK, Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, warned that the criticism could damage Riyadh's business dealings with Britain. Despite global condemnation, the Saudi Government has continued to carry out executions at a high rate since King Salman came to power in January 2015. According to Amnesty International Saudi Arabia has one of the highest execution rates in the world. Saudi Arabia has executed at least 175 people in the past year, at a rate of one every two days. The kingdom killed 102 convicted criminals in the first six months of 2015 alone. Those killed included children under the age of 18 at the time of the offence, and disabled people. The Saudi government is also targeting bloggers, journalists, and activists who, despite their small numbers have become prominent defenders of human rights in the kingdom.It’s estimated that there are over 30,000 political prisoners in Saudi prisons, with Sheikh Nimr as the symbolic figure. Many believe Saudi Arabia will pay dearly if Sheikh Nimr is executed.

The country is yet to provide a convincing response for its mismanagement of the year’s Hajj pilgrimage, which led to the death of thousands of Muslims; that’s while, about 7,000 people in Yemen have lost their lives in the Saudi strikes, and a total of nearly 14,000 have been injured since March 26; that’s while Saudi-sponsored ISIL terrorists are waging war on Syria and Iraq wreaking death and destruction on millions of innocent people; that’s while activists in Bahrain are being brutally oppressed by the Saudi regime and its proxies; and when it comes to home, the Shia community has been repeatedly victimized by the heavy-handed, often murderous, tactics of Saudi security forces. Saudi Arabia perhaps remains the world leader in systematic and institutional oppression of its own citizens. And yet, Britain has sponsored and supported Saudis’ application to be part of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

SOUNDBITE [English] Interviewer: “As we in November did a deal with the Saudis that we would back them joining the human rights councils in the United Nations providing they backed us. Isn’t this sounds a bit squalid for one or the most human right abusing regime on earth?”

SOUNDBITE [English] David Cameron, British Prime Minster: “Well, Saudi Arabia is a member of the United Nations but we completely disagree with them …”

SOUNDBITE [English] Interviewer: “No, why did you want them inside the human rights …”

SOUNDBITE [English] David Cameron, British Prime Minster: “We completely disagree with them about the punishment routines about the death penalty, about those issues …”

SOUNDBITE [English] Interviewer: “But why did you deal with them? I mean they are not the right sort of people to be doing any sort of deal on human rights …”

SOUNDBITE [English] David Cameron, British Prime Minster: “We totally oppose their record on that area?”

SOUNDBITE [English] Interviewer: “Why did we do it?”

SOUNDBITE [English] David Cameron, British Prime Minster: “I said we totally oppose their record.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Interviewer: “No, why did we do it?”

SOUNDBITE [English] David Cameron, British Prime Minster: “I answered the question.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Interviewer: “That isn’t an answer. I mean we have done a horrid deal.”

Narration: The Saudis are trying to make an example out of Sheikh Nimr to scare off any other people who call for reforms within their country or within the other Persian Gulf dictatorships. But they should be very careful of the tipping point; the murder of the Sheikh can be the straw that breaks the camel's back; it can result in the collapse of the House of Saudi. 

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