Arms wide open: Pope welcomed to DC as youth awaits execution in Saudi Arabia

By Michaela Anang

On September 24, Congress welcomed Pope Francis into its halls to give a speech touching on topics such as ending poverty, cultural inclusion, and politicians not being “slave[s] to the economy and finance.” As these were all topics notably missing during the recent GOP debate, the public had a lot to gain from Pope Francis’ speech. One comment that particularly caught attention was on capital punishment. In his speech, the pope “advocates at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty.” These comments were met with applause from members of Congress (despite the continued use of lethal injection in the U.S.).

While Congress and people across the country applauded the pope’s urging to uphold the sanctity of every human life,  the irony was not lost among the CODEPINK staff that in Saudi Arabia, a close ally of the United States, 21-year-old Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr awaits his sentence of beheading and crucifixion.

Ali al-Nimr was sentenced to crucifixion for “crimes” committed in 2012 when he was 17. These crimes allegedly include illegal demonstrations and firearms offences (which have not been proven and have been strongly denied by al-Nimr’s family).

Organizations that have been working with the case and al-Nimr’s family report that his trial was unfair (he was denied access to a lawyer for much of it), that he was subjected to torture and coerced into confession. He has been sentenced to death by beheading, after which his body will be crucified and publicly displayed.

Even beyond the fact that his trial was flawed and unjust and his sentence abhorrent, his sentence (the final appeal for which was denied on Sept. 15) is in clear violation of the Conventions of the Rights of the Child which Saudi Arabia signed in 1996. The convention states that capital punishment is outlawed for crimes committed before the age of 18. Ali’s arrest for activism against a repressive monarchy occurred when he was 17 years old, yet he continues to be imprisoned and awaits execution. As is typical in Saudi Arabia, family members are not informed until after executions have taken place, and although they hold fragile hope for his release, Ali al-Nimr could be put to death at any time.

This atrocious news comes amid the continuing war Saudi Arabia wages against Yemen, where thousands have been killed, and numerous other domestic crimes and human rights abuses have been committed, including the imprisonment and flogging of blogger Raif Badawi. This leaves the public to wonder why Saudi Arabia is such a close ally of the United States.

The U.S. continues to sell arms to Saudi Arabia to the tune of over $60 billion over the next 15-20 years, weapons used to kill people rising up in neighboring countries of Yemen and Bahrain. It is past time for the administration to echo the question posed by their recent guest Pope Francis, “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?”

It is ironic that Congress opened its doors to the pope with such a message while just a few weeks before, President Obama opened the White House to King Salman, ruler of the Saudi Arabian monarchy. Since Salman has taken over the monarchy, the kingdom has seen a significant increase in executions, yet the administration has left these egregious offences unchallenged.

It is also ironic (and baffling) that Saudi Arabia was recently chosen to head a key UN human rights panel, and that the U.S. approved of this appointment. This comes as an affront to human rights groups who have been advocating for the release of prisoners like Raif Badawi and Ali al-Nimr.

Maya Foa, director of the human rights organization Reprieve's death penalty team, said it was "deeply troubling" that the United States and other allies of Saudi Arabia were "staying silent" over al-Nimr’s case and that "the international community must stand firm against this utterly unjustified sentence." Reprieve and other groups urge people to sign this petition to save Ali al-Nimr from unjust execution.

The U.S. clearly needs to reevaluate relations with Saudi Arabia and stop tacitly supporting a regime rife with human rights abuses and executions. Since the administration doesn’t seem to be making moves any time soon, citizen activists have taken matters into their own hands and a new coalition has been formed to expose the negative influence of Saudi money in the American political system. We hope you’ll join us.

As the U.S. bids farewell to the pope after his visit, it’s time for the administration and public to reflect on the messages he delivered: “Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples.”

Michaela Anang interns at CODEPINK DC and is a student at Northeastern University studying Human Services and International Affairs.


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