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US Enabled Saudi Arabia’s Crackdown on Pro-Democracy Protesters



Just days before Saudi Arabia performed a mass execution of 47 people, including four pro-democracy protesters; the US approved tens of millions in military contracts to the Saudi government. The contracts include $24 million to Raytheon Company for equipment relating to Patriot missiles, $12 million to Advanced Electronics Co. for electronics updates to F-15 fighter jets, and tens of millions of dollars to Boeing Co. for implementation of a laser guided, air-to-ground weapons system.

The Pentagon announced the contracts three days before the execution of four non-violent Shia protesters. The majority of the executions were carried out in the form of beheadings—the same form of execution favored by ISIS.

The weapons contracts draw attention to the US government’s continued arming of the Saudi government, which regularly engages in human rights abuses at home and abroad. Despite recent allegations of war crimes against Saudi Arabia for its war in Yemen, the US continues to replenish Saudi’s arsenal with billions in weapons.

As a result, Amnesty International has accused the US of violating the Arms Trade Treaty. The treaty prohibits the sale of arms if there is knowledge the weapons will be used against civilians. The International Committee of the Red Cross has documented 100 instances of the Saudi-led coalition attacking hospitals in Yemen.

Among those executed earlier this week was the Sheik Nimr al-Nimr, who was well known to Shia Muslims around the world. Al-Nimr was a leader of the 2011 Arab Spring protest in Saudi Arabia’s Shia region. His execution sparked protests in multiple countries including Iran, where protesters set the Saudi Embassy ablaze. In response to the embassy fire, Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic relations with Iran.

Human Rights Watch reported that al-Nimr, “supported only peaceful protests and eschewed all violent opposition to the government.” In US cables released by Wikileaks, al-Nimr stated his support for “American ideals” like peace and justice. He also said acts of violence “directly contradict the spirit of Shi’ism” and as a result, Shia Muslims such as himself “are natural allies for America”.

The three other protesters set to death were teenagers at the time of their arrest. These young men participated in peaceful pro-democracy protests during Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring. Yet, Saudi Arabia, fearing a democratic movement, which could challenge the royal family’s complete control over the country, has accused the protesters of terrorism.

The three young men executed were Ali al-Ribh, just 18 at the time of his arrest, Mohammad Shioukh, 19 at time of his arrest, and Mohammad Suweimal, whom little is known about.

In addition to these three executed protesters, three other young protesters, who were minors at the time of their arrest, have been sentenced to death and are awaiting their executions. They are Ali al-Nimr, who is Sheikh al-Nimr’s nephew and was arrested at 17, Dawoud al-Marhoon who was 17 at the time of his arrest, and Abdullah al-Zaher who was 15.

Many of these young men awaiting execution or recently executed were tortured while they were detained. It is unlikely that any of them received a fair trial.

Human Rights Watch has “documented longstanding due process violations in Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system that make it difficult for a defendant to get a fair trial.”

Reader Supported News spoke with Ali al-Ribh’s mother prior to her son’s execution on January 1. His mother said Ali experienced both physical and psychological torture while in prison, which was used to force him to make a false confession.

“All charges are without proof or evidence,” Ali’s mother said. “The whole thing is a malicious sectarian case and nothingmore,” she added.

“My son has always had a great love for freedom and equality. The injustice and discrimination against the Shia community in Saudi Arabia affected him deeply,” she said. “Ali was kindhearted, at an early age he knew he wanted to help his community by working to bring about peaceful democratic changes.”

According to Ali’s mother, Ali was held in solitary and was refused medical treatment after receiving a broken nose, injuries to his head, limbs, and back due to torture. He was also subjected to sleep deprivation and did not receive adequate meals.

The executions of these four Shia protesters were met with widespread condemnation. Amnesty International described the executions as a demonstration of Saudi Arabia’s “utter disregard for human rights.”

Philip Luther, the Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program, stated the killing of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr suggests the Saudi government is, “using the death penalty in the name of counter-terror to settle scores and crush dissidents.”

Brian Dooley, of Human Rights First, criticized Washington’s support for Saudi Arabia. He wrote, “Washington’s muted response to mounting Saudi violations — 2015 saw at least 157 executions after unfair trials, the most for two decades, and a continuing clamp down on non-violent critics of the government — only enables the repression.”

These executions have already had wide-ranging political impacts and may further destabilize the Middle East. This is likely to be the case in Iraq where the US is hoping to minimize sectarian tensions, which force Sunni Muslims to support to ISIS.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi stated that the execution of Sheik al-Nimr “would lead to nothing but more destruction.” He continued, “Violating human rights … leads to repercussions on the security, stability and the social fabric of the peoples of the region.”

For the families of those who’ve been executed, the broader political fallout may  only heighten the pain of losing a family member.

Ali’s mother told me, “Ali’s imprisonment deeply touched our lifes as his parents. Ali aspired to become an electronics engineer and to complete his university studies in America. But injustice prevented him from achieving his wishes.”

“My son was taken away from me. He suffered from all kinds of torment and abuse, and still he always said, ‘dont worry I am not the only who oppressed and sentenced to death. There are many people who are like me.’”

“Ali wanted to raise awareness of the injustice of Shia in Saudi Arabia. He wanted the world to know about all of the peaceful protesters, who’ve been wrongly accussed of crimes. Ali wished to stand for all the oppressed, and to have all free people stand with him, so we can all have a victory of freedom and democracy.”

Ali’s mother concluded by saying, “Ali’s spirit of hope and his love gave us strength, but now when I think of him, all I feel is pain.”

Paul Gottinger is a journalist based in Madison, WI whose work focuses on the Middle East. He can be reached via Twitter @paulgottinger or email:

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