The family of a teenage protester who faces beheading in Saudi Arabia has come forward in public for the first time to plead for his life.
The father of Abdullah al-Zaher, 19, called on the world to help before it is too late and his son is executed in the kingdom along with a reported 51 others.
“Please help me save my son from the imminent threat of death. He doesn’t deserve to die just because he participated in a protest rally,” Hassan al-Zaher told the Guardian.
Arrested in March 2012, just shy of his 16th birthday, after participating in protests in Saudi Arabia’s eastern Shia-dominated province, the charges against Zaher range from “harbouring” protesters, participating in demonstrations and chanting slogans, to setting fire to a car and throwing Molotov cocktails.
His family and the death penalty campaign group,Reprieve, allege that Zaher, was tortured, saying that after his arrest, Saudi security forces beat him with wire iron rods, forced a confession from him, and did not allow Zaher to speak to his family or a lawyer.
“He was forced to sign a paper that the police fabricated and that he was not able to read under a threat of corporal punishment. He told me that he did not throw Molotov [cocktails] or anything similar,” his father told the Guardian.
Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s heaviest users of the death sentence and according to figures from Amnesty International, executed 102 people – more than in all of 2014 – in the first six months of 2015.
In late November a flurry of Arabic language media reports said that 52 prisoners would be executed across nine different cities in a single day. The prisoners have been described as members of al-Qaida whose aim was to overthrow the ruling elite.
Zaher was sentenced to death in October last year by the secretive specialised criminal court in Riyadh. As with other juveniles tried at the same time, the government prosecutor asked for Zaher to be crucified after his beheading.
Reprieve said Zaher was the youngest person at the time of their arrest that they were aware of in Saudi Arabia who had been given a death sentence. Zaher, Nimr and a third minor at the time of his arrest, Dawood al-Marhoon are all currently being held in isolation following failed appeals, the group said.
Zaher’s and his fellow juveniles’ cases represent an ever-growing list of those being corporally punished for mainly non-violent offences. They include the blogger Raif Badawi, who is expected to receive hundreds of lashings for criticising the government and the Palestinian poet, Ashraf Fayadh, who was convicted of “apostasy” and sentenced to death.
Reprieve said the plans for the mass execution were “alarming … and should prompt revulsion and condemnation from Saudi Arabia’s allies”.
Hassan al-Zaher, who works in a pipe manufacturing factory, said he last saw his son three months ago during a 10-minute visit.
“I can say the condition of his health is not good, as his body is thin,” he said. His son has since been since transferred to a jail 1,000 km away.
He told the Guardian that their son was arrested on his way home after his mother, Fatima Gazwi, sent him out to go to the shops. On the street Zaher was identified as a protester and when the police asked him to stop he fled in fear, stopping when they fired a warning shot, the family said. The parents then allege that Zaher was beaten and his face was bloodied after being hit with a rifle butt.
Visiting him in jail, they also saw other signs of physical punishment during detention “on his face and body”.
His father said the family was coming forward now because they felt that as a minority religious group seeking equal treatment in the kingdom, they had no other option.
“He was only 15 years old, still a minor, so we expected a lesser punishment if he was proven guilty.”
“[So] the decision of the court was as difficult for us to accept as to appeal, as we, as Shias in this Sunni dominated country, have only very little voice.
“This is why we feel compelled to exert all efforts and avenues that may save the life of my son.”
Hassan al-Zaher described his son as popular and peaceful adding that he attend the protests knowing little of what they were about.
“He loved to ride my horses and wanted to become a medical assistant or nurse someday.”
“My son … did not fully understand what the people are protesting for. He just went there after being invited by a friend. He did not go there with the intention of fighting or opposing the government, in his eyes it was just a simple protest rally.”
Saudi Arabia’s corporal punishments have recently strained relations with the UK. Following concerns from opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn over Ali al-Nimr’s situation, the government pulled out of bidding for a prison training contractworth £5.9m
On 20 October the UK foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, told the Commons: “I do not expect Mr Al-Nimr to be executed.”
“Our judgment is that we achieve most by speaking privately and regularly to our Saudi interlocutors,” he said.
Last week, sources at the Foreign Office told the Guardian that Hammond still stood behind his Commons statement adding that the UK ambassador in Riyadh continued to raise the issue at regular intervals.
Maya Foa, head of the death penalty team at Reprieve, said: “Abdullah al-Zaher has been through a horrifying ordeal.
“It is utterly disgraceful that the Saudi authorities are now threatening to carry out his beheading imminently, along with the killing of other juveniles like Ali al-Nimr. Those governments who are among the closest Saudi allies – notably the UK and the US – must step in without delay and urge the Saudi authorities to change course.”
The Saudi government did not respond to a request for comment. The Saudi ambassador to the UK, Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, said in October that kingdom’s justice system was based on sharia law, implemented by an independent judiciary and “just as we respect the local traditions, customs, laws and religion of Britain, we expect Britain to grant us this same respect”.(Shiv Malik)
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