In the photos that have spread like wildfire around the world, Ali al-Nimr is the picture of youth. The Saudi 17-year-old is handsome and happy, wearing well tailored clothes and an irrepressible half smile. His cheeks are round, betraying a trace of childhood chubbiness, but his chin is strong and square.
That was four years ago, however. Before his arrest during Arab Spring protests. Before his alleged torture.
Before he was sentenced to die.
There are no new portraits of Ali. Few people are allowed to visit him in prison, and the Saudi government isn’t eager to publicize his case.
Instead, his family has been forced to watch as the handsome boy has become a haggard man — behind bars.
“Ever since he was a teenager, he has lived inside either the four walls of juvenile detention or… prison,” his father, Mohammed al-Nimr, told The Washington Post. “He is currently being denied his youth.”
But Ali’s aborted youth has not gone entirely unnoticed. Ever since the Saudi supreme court approved Ali’s death sentence in August, a growing chorus of critics have asked why a country would execute someone for protesting as a 17-year-old.
The UN has demanded Saudi Arabia “immediately halt” the execution. British prime minister David Cameron told the Saudi government simply: “Don’t do it.” Angry hackers from the group Anonymous reportedly retaliated against Saudi government servers. And comedian Bill Maher even compared Nimr, with irony, to American “clock boy” Ahmed Mohammed, calling for support for the imprisoned Saudi.
Much of the media attention has seized, inaccurately, on reports that Ali will be beheaded or crucified unless King Salman intervenes. In fact, the execution method has not been decided, experts inside and outside Saudi Arabia told The Post.
Yet, Ali’s story has struck a nerve for other reasons as well. To supporters, his case sums up the sad failure of the Arab Spring: a young, idealistic protester violently arrested and painted as a terrorist. It also speaks volumes about Saudi Arabia, highlighting its spiraling execution count and hinting at social unrest inside the oil-rich American ally.
Ali’s young face has become a snapshot of the kingdom’s sectarian strife, and his childhood photos have been pulled into an international human rights campaign against the country.
As a result, Ali al-Nimr is now the poster-child for Saudi Arabia’s problems — at the ripe old age of 20.
“This is a kind of terrorism and force being exercised against childhood,” Mohammed al-Nimr told The Post. “If a death sentence and the threat of it being carried out would certainly worry older people, then what about the youth?”
An Arab Spring cut short by arrests
In many ways, Ali Mohammed al-Nimr was the face of Saudi Arabia’s very own Arab Spring. And in many ways, his imprisonment and potential execution reflects his country’s hostile response to such dissent.
Like many of those leading protests across the region in 2011 and 2012, Ali was young, middle-class and well educated. His father, Mohammed, is a businessman and magazine editor in the eastern Saudi city of Qatif . His uncle, Nimr al-Nimr, is a well known Shiite cleric.
“He was a good student with high grades right from the start,” Mohammed al-Nimr said, speaking to The Post on the telephone and via email. As a teenager, Ali loved traveling, photography and riding his bicycle. Family photos show him dressed in western clothes, from Abercrombie & Fitch polos to hooded sweatshirts, his dark hair drooping down stylishly.
Yet, Ali fancied more than western fashion. He was also drawn to its freedom of speech.
“His personality has a bit of stubbornness, independence, and rebelliousness,” his father said.
So it wasn’t surprising that when Qatif erupted into protests in late 2011 and early 2012 — just as the Arab Spring was hitting full stride elsewhere, with strongmen leaders forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen — Ali wanted to participate.
But things quickly spiraled out of control, both for Ali and his country.
Qatif has long been a problem spot for Saudi Arabia’s Sunni-led government. The city is culturally and geographically close to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival. Although ten percent of the Saudi population is Shiite, most are concentrated in the east in or around Qatif. The city was also the site of a bloody uprising in 1979, when Shiites boosted by the Iranian revolution demanded better treatment from Sunni authorities. At least 21 protesters were killed, according to Peter W. Wilson’s “Saudi Arabia: The Coming Storm.”
Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring met the same fate. The Saudi government accused protesters of being aligned with Iran and plotting a revolt or simply being criminals. Ali and other young Qatifis were quickly confronted by armed police. Hundreds were arrested, including scores of children as young as 14. More than a dozen protesters were killed. Several police officers also died.
Mohammed al-Nimr didn’t deny that the protests turned violent, but he said it was a response to the government’s brutal tactics.
Warning: This article contains a graphic image of a wounded protester, below.
“Just like tens of thousands of the youth in Qatif and Hasa, Ali was moved by the Arab Spring in 2011 and 2012,” his father remembered. “This movement emerged with peaceful demands for the release of prisoners who were detained for 16 years. This Qatifi Spring was confronted brutally, and then turned to violent actions and reactions between the youth and security forces, which ended the movement’s peacefulness.”
In January of 2012, the government put out a list of its most-wanted protesters, or suspects, and asked them to turn themselves in. By February, officials had grown tired of waiting.
On Feb. 12, police arrested Ali as he left his school in Qatif. The 17-year-old was riding his bicycle at the time, and officers smashed into him with their car, according to Saudi human rights activist Waleed Sulais. Ali suffered several broken bones and had to be hospitalized, his father told The Post, also claiming that his son was detained without an arrest warrant.
At first, however, the government seemed to consider Ali more of a nuisance than a threat.
“At the time, the general prosecutor did not charge him with the acts of terrorism he is being charged with right now,” his father said. As evidence, he cited an occasion shortly after Ali’s arrest when the teen was allowed to leave prison and visit his family at home.
But protests continued in Qatif, where Ali’s uncle, Nimr al-Nimr, was increasingly taking center stage. The Shiite cleric had been arrested several times before but quickly released, according to Saudi newspaper al-Akhbar. Now his sermons were growing more scathing, calling the crown prince a tyrant and even threatening that eastern Saudi Arabia could secede, according to al-Akhbar. He also organized a petition demanding the government recognize the Shiite faith and treat Shiites as equals.
On July 8, Nimr al-Nimr was driving in his car when police shot him in the leg and arrested him. Authorities claimed they shot him only after a bodyguard fired at them, but Mohammed said his brother never traveled with a bodyguard and didn’t own a gun.
Prosecutors accused the cleric of “inciting sectarian strife,” “aiding terrorists,” and “insulting Gulf leaders and scholars,” according to al-Akhbar. Mohammed al-Nimr said his brother never advocated violence or even seriously espoused secession.
The cleric’s arrest was a crucial moment in the case against Ali, Mohammed said.
“Things changed after his uncle Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was arrested,” he said. “There was a political need for revenge against his uncle, and also to pressure him through this young man, since he did not cooperate during investigations.”
A spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, which handles security inside the kingdom, did not respond to requests for comment on either case.
As protests intensified and several more demonstrators were killed, prosecutors filed more serious charges against Ali. On top of earlier allegations of “breaking allegiance with the ruler,” “going out to a number of marches, demonstrations, and gatherings against the state and repeating some chants against the state,” and using his cell phone to incite demonstrations, he was now also accused of sheltering fugitives and attacking police with Molotov cocktails and rocks, according to CNN.
Whereas once prosecutors had allowed Ali to return home to visit his family, they now called for his head.
“I am proud of how much he loves freedom,” Mohammed al-Nimr said of his son’s involvement in the Arab Spring, before adding ruefully: “It might cost him his life.”
“I would rather die than stay in this place”
In August of 2012, Ali al-Nimr’s mother went to see her son in prison. It was half a year since his arrest and more than a month since his uncle was shot and captured. The 17-year-old looked unwell. When she asked why, he told her his jailers had tortured him until he confessed.
“I would rather die than stay in this place,” Ali said to his mother, according to his father.
More than three years later, Ali may get his wish.
Despite claims of torture and a political show trial, the case against Ali has sped through Saudi Arabia’s judicial system. He was convicted in May of last year. And on Aug. 17, the country’s supreme court upheld the verdict against Ali. Now the only thing standing between the 20-year-old and certain death is King Salman.
If this year’s record number of executions is any indication, the king is not in the mood for clemency. So far in 2015, Saudi Arabia has executed at least 134 people to death, according to AFP, far outstripping the country’s own benchmark of 87 set last year.
Ali’s case has drawn renewed scrutiny to Saudi Arabia’s rising rate of capital punishment, just as the country faces broader criticism over its human rights record.
“So many people are executed in Saudi Arabia but this particular case has become emblematic,” said Christof Heyns, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, in a telephone interview with The Post.
“This one has all the elements: the state using its power to crush dissent, to send a chilling effect, the potential of the way in which the execution takes place, the fact that one can identify with the young person, with his picture, with his youth, the idealism of youth,” he said, adding that media reports of Ali’s imminent beheading or crucifixion, while mistaken, “add another layer of cruelty and shock.”
Added to this perfect storm over Ali’s case is a broader anger towards Saudi Arabia. In 2013, the country drew widespread revulsion for sentencing a blogger to 1,000 lashes. Last year, the kingdom was again criticized, this time for prosecuting women who dared to drive. In recent months, the country has been accused of both indiscriminately bombing Houthi rebels in Yemen and shirking its duties towards Syrian refugees.
When it was recently announced that Saudi Arabia would head the UN human rights panel, critics were apoplectic, even though Heyns said the country had occupied the post in the past.
But the general outrage towards Saudi Arabia also threatens to obscure the particular problems with Ali’s case. First, there is his age at the time of his arrest.
“It’s so clearly in violation of international law,” Heyns told The Post, pointing out that Saudi Arabia had signed two treaties — the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — prohibiting the execution of minor offenders.
Waleed Sulais, the Saudi human rights activist, said Ali wasn’t even allowed to meet with his lawyer, making a mockery of claims to a fair trial.
“The lawyer didn’t supply the court with any documents because he wasn’t allowed to meet Ali in the prison, not because of court but because of the prison,” Sulais said. “The judge issued a letter to the prison that the prison must allow the lawyer to meet Ali, but every time he went to the prison to meet Ali he was refused.”
Sulais said claims that Ali was tortured surfaced in court but were ignored. Meanwhile, Heyns said none of the charges merited the death penalty.
“There are certainly no allegations that he has killed somebody, so it seems to be politically motivated,” he said of the prosecution. “It’s basically an assertion of the authority of the state that is at stake.”
Heyns said he welcomed the added scrutiny of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, but said it probably wouldn’t save Ali.
“If the execution goes ahead, then it will obviously be too late in this particular case,” he said.
Sulais said he and other Saudi activists had called on King Salman to spare Ali. Such an act of royal mercy is unlikely but not unheard of. Last year Salman’s predecessor, King Abdullah, commuted the sentences of six people sentenced to death, although 87 met the sword.
In fact, Saudi Arabia is moving in the opposite direction, Sulais said. Under a new law passed last year, death sentences no longer require a unanimous vote among judges; just a majority.
“Before it was quite difficult” to sentence someone to die, the activist said. “Now it is democratic.”
An endless downward spiral
The last time Mohammed al-Nimr saw his son was Sept. 25. It was the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, so Ali was allowed ten minutes with his family.
Ali has spent the past two years inside Mabahith prison, which is run by the country’s intelligence agency and reportedly houses more than 300 political prisoners. Every morning, Ali is allowed out of his cell for an hour to either meet with approved visitors or to read a newspaper, according to his family.
“He waits for us, and counts the weeks, days, and hours until our next visitation date,” his father told The Post. “He brightens whenever he sees his family beside him, and he had – and still has – a broad smile.”
On the morning of Sept. 25, Ali’s parents sat down and began preparing their son for bad news: the supreme court’s rejection of his appeal. But he cut them off.
“Forget these preliminaries,” he said, according to his father. “I know about the sentence.”
“He started calming his mother down with words filled with energy and acceptance of God’s will,” Mohammed recalled.
Now 20 years old and broad shouldered, Ali is prepared to die. Instead, it his country that might not be able to handle it.
“I fear that the consequences and unrestrained reaction on the street might lead to us losing control over the city and entering an endless downward spiral,” his father said. Ali isn’t the only political prisoner facing execution. A handful of other protesters also face imminent death. One of them is his uncle, Nimr al-Nimr, although his case has yet to go before the supreme court. At least two others on death row are there simply for protesting while minors, Heyns said.
Despite Saudi Arabia’s soaring execution rate, the country hasn’t executed a political prisoner for decades. But Mohammed al-Nimr believes executing his son will only lead to more bloodshed.
“I have stated clearly, before and now, to everyone that responses should not go beyond peaceful action, even if, God forbid, harm happens to Ali,” he said. “We believe that addressing all issues in our country must, first and foremost, come through communication with state officials.”
Mohammed has gone on Saudi television to ask King Salman to spare his son. After almost four years of agony, he must wait a little while longer for it to end, one way or another.
In the meantime, he travels the region begging neighboring countries to help secure his son’s release. As he embarks on each trip, he is confronted by a painful reminder of Ali’s ordeal: the bicycle he was riding when arrested.
But underneath the pain, there is hope.
“I still see the bicycle every day as I leave and return home,” Mohammed said. “Day and night, I imagine him riding his bicycle again.”
Correction: Saudi Arabia was recently selected to head a UN human rights panel, not the UN Human Rights Council.