Son of Prominent Saudi Dissident: Why Won't United States Condemn Brutal Execution of My Father?

Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr's execution touched off global protests.

Photo Credit: AlterNet

Mohammed Al-Nimr wants to know why the U.S. government is refusing to condemn its Saudi Arabian allies’ recent execution of his father, the political dissident Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr, whose unfair trial and subsequent killing set off shock waves of outrage and protests around the world, from the United Kingdom to Yemen.

“There was no condemning, nothing from the United States, just an expression of concern. That’s shameful,” Al-Nimr told AlterNet from the first international summit examining the special relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, held in Washington, D.C. last weekend. “You should express more than your concern about the execution of a man who didn’t do anything wrong, who was demanding peaceful change.”

A prominent protest leader and advocate for equal Shia rights, Sheikh Al-Nimr told BBC in 2011 that he preferred “the roar of the word against authorities rather than weapons … the weapon of the word is stronger than bullets, because authorities will profit from a battle of weapons.” He was arrested in 2012 and eventually put to death for the very words he levied to criticize the government.

The younger Al-Nimr, who has two sisters and recently graduated from Purdue University with a mechanical engineering degree, is not alone in his loss. His father was one of 47 people executed by the Saudi state in at the onset of the new year—the largest Saudi mass execution in decades. And he was one of 70 killed so far in 2016 under King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

The January mass killings that took Al-Nimr’s life escalated sectarian tensions and diplomatic fall-out across the Middle East. They also sent a grim warning to the ongoing but besieged protest movements in a country where the Shia communities that comprise roughly 15 percent of the population face systemic discrimination, from education to employment, including arbitrary arrests, as documented by Human Rights Watch.

The executions provoked strong rebuke from human rights organizations and finger wagging from United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, all of whom derided the wildly unfair trials. The United States, however, issued a remarkably tepid response, prompting even the New York Times to point out that the Obama administration “could not bring itself” to issue a meaningful rebuke. This failure was in keeping with U.S. government silence in the lead-up to the executions.

So Al-Nimr’s son brought his condemnation to Washington, joining with people from Bahrain, Yemen and around the world in calling attention to the dangerous collaboration between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. “My father was asking for freedom and dignity,” said Al-Nimr, whose cousin Ali Al-Nimr, just 17 when he was arrested in 2012, is currently on death row despite international outcry.

Organized by CodePink, the international meeting came amid mounting concerns at ongoing U.S. and Saudi atrocities across the Middle East, as the brutal war in Yemen nears the one-year mark and both countries continue to militarize and escalate conflicts across the region under the seemingly open-ended war on terror. “The U.S. should not be supplying weapons to a repressive government that is dropping weapons on people in neighboring country and repressing people at home,” Sunjeev Berry, advocacy director for Middle East North Africa issues at Amnesty International meanwhile, told a packed room.

Many, like Al-Nimr, came to the gathering with first-hand experience of abuses committed within the kingdom’s borders.

“Saudi women want you to speak out,” declared Ebtihal Mubarak, a Saudi journalist born in Jeddah who currently lives in New York City. Mubarak condemned a state where male guardianship is codified into law, and a woman's male guardian can be her brother, her uncle or even her son. She added, “I’d like you to challenge the covenant between U.S. media and Saudi government.”

Saudi Arabia’s large numbers of migrant workers, meanwhile, face a labor system in which their legal permits to work are tied to their employers, opening the door to severe abuse. “Corporate America played a key role in creating a highly discriminatory system of employment in Saudi Arabia,” said Sharat Lin, a writer on global political economy and labor in the Middle East and South Asia.”

Many emphasized that Saudi Arabia is not a lone actor, but is fully partnering with the United States in its atrocities. This collaboration is egregiously on display in Yemen, where the United States is providing direct intelligence and assistance for the ruthless bombing campaign that is targeting homes, schools, refugee camps and weddings. “We should stop being accomplices and supporters of crimes committed in the region,” said Raed Jarrar, government relations manager for the American Friends Service Committee.

According to Al-Nimr, protests continue to the present day but face severe repression from the government, which is the number-one importer of U.S. arms. “People are scared,” he said. “The government is using lethal force against people all the time. Even if they don’t, it is easy for them to press heavy charges.”

“The United States needs to have a sense of responsibility,” Al-Nimr urged. “I mean the people, not the government. You are in this world for a reason, and the reason is to support freedom. You should stigmatize anyone who deals this way with the Saudi government.”

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.