The imminent public execution of 21-year-old Saudi activist Ali Mohammed al-Nimr has sparked worldwide condemnation while, at the same time, shining a light on what rights groups say is the brutal impunity under which the Saudi Arabian government operates, thanks to its "special relationship" with Western leaders.
The Saudi government sentenced al-Nimr to death by "crucifixion" in May 2014 after advocates say the then-17-year-old was imprisoned and tortured into confessing to a series of anti-government crimes, including sedition, rioting, and "breaking allegiance" to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. With the ruling upheld by an appeals court last week, al-Nimr will be executed as soon as the king ratifies the sentence.
Supporters say that his execution would "violate international law" and that the youth has been unfairly targeted because authorities "dislike" his uncle, the prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who has also been sentenced to death.
The case of al-Nimr has received international attention and rebuke.
Human rights groups including Amnesty International, Reprieve, the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights, and the United Nations, among others, all issued statements calling for his acquittal. Codepink is holding a protest outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy on Wednesday to denounce the regime's "crackdown on political dissidents," including al-Nimr. And over the weekend, the Anonymous hacktivist collective shut down Saudi government websites in protest of al-Nimr's sentencing.
What's more, the newly elected UK Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn has publicly asked British Prime Minister David Cameron to intervene in the case and boycott the regime by dropping the UK government bid for a Saudi prison contract.
This contract, according to Reprieve attorney Clive Stafford Smith, would hire an arm of the UK's Ministry for Justice to "conduct a training needs analysis for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia prison service staff."
"What does this entail?" Smith asks. "How to torture a juvenile? How to affix him to the cross? How much will [the UK government] be paid, 30 pieces of silver?"
"When will the government learn that to cozy up to despots means that we are on the wrong side of human rights, and ultimately the wrong side of history," Smith adds.
Indeed, the controversy highlights a relationship that human rights observers have for years condemned between Western governments and their Saudi allies.
It was revealed on Tuesday that in 2013 the UK government covertly helped the Saudi government secure a seat at UN Human Rights Council.
As for the U.S., the country's relationship with Saudi Arabia stretches back generations and includes robust oil and weapons trades as well as military backing, including for the ongoing Saudi-led coalition attack on Yemen. In 2014, Saudi Arabia was the number one weapons trading partner with the United States.
Saudi scholar Ali al-Ahmed with the Washington D.C.-based Institute for Gulf Affairs said in a statement, "It is ironic that the U.S. government has been so critical of Iranian abuses, but silent about the abuses by its ally Saudi Arabia, which includes sentencing a young man to a medieval form of torture—crucifixion!"
The State Department has so far refused to comment on the case.
In an interview published at U.S. Uncut on Wednesday, al-Nimr's father, Mohamed, said he hopes that Western governments intervene on his son's behalf.
"Many of the governments in the West have a close relationship with the Saudi Arabian government. We hope that they reach out to King Salman and urge him not to sign off on Ali’s execution and encourage him to release Ali," he said. "I hope the governments of the West will take an action in the interest of human rights and call on Saudi Arabia to release Ali."
Mohamed said that when his son was told about the final sentencing, al-Nimr replied: "Father, I’m not the only person in the world who has suffered injustice and been falsely prosecuted."
Voices of support and updates on the case can be found online under the hashtag #alimohammedalnimr.