U.S. Quiet on Saudi Arabia’s Deplorable Use of Death Penalty

Last week President Obama denounced ISIL in his remarks to the U.N. General Assembly for “behead[ing] captives,” calling its conduct “an assault on all humanity.” Meanwhile, the White House and State Department remain quiet as Saudi Arabia prepares to execute Ali al-Nimr by beheading and crucifixion.

Ali al-Nimr was only 17 years old when he was arrested in 2012 for peacefully protesting for social and political reforms. Despite a vigorous campaign by international civil society organizations to secure his release and intense media attention, he lost his final appeal on September 17th. Saudi Arabia may execute al-Nimr any day now by beheading and then crucifying his body for public display.

The Obama Adminstration has not made any public statements on al-Nimr’s case except to note in the State Department’s 2014 Human Rights Report that he was sentenced to death for crimes he allegedly committed when he was a legal minor. The report also notes al-Nimr’s allegations that authorities tortured him to obtain a confession.

When asked about al-Nimr’s impending execution on September 23, the White House press secretary only stated that the United States “regularly raises our concerns about the human rights situation inside of Saudi Arabia.”

Private diplomacy is inadequate for injustices of this caliber. The U.S. government’s double standard on beheadings—calling out ISIL but remaining quiet when an allied nation does the same—is unjustifiable. Furthermore, this stance will weaken the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia in the long run. The United States has mostly ignored the fact that Saudi Arabia’s conduct in many ways resembles that of the extremist organizations they are supposed to be fighting together.

Earlier this year Human Rights First released a blueprint on how the United States can strengthen its relationship with Saudi Arabia, which should be rooted in shared respect for the universal values of human rights. President Obama should commit to personally raising human rights issues during communications with Saudi leaders on a sustained and substantive basis. The State Department should publicly and privately raise the cases of Saudi human rights defenders and peaceful dissidents in jail or otherwise persecuted as a top concern.

Al-Nimr’s imminent execution is deplorable—and it’s not an isolated case. Another Saudi detainee, Dawoud al-Marhoon, was reportedly just sentenced to death by beheading for acts committed during the Arab Spring when he was a teenager. Like al-Nimr, he was allegedly tortured and forced to sign a confession.

As the White House strives to demonstrate leadership on countering violent extremism, it must speak out forcefully. As President Obama said at the U.N. Leaders Summit, “When human rights are denied and citizens have no opportunity to redress their grievances peacefully, it feeds terrorist propaganda that justifies violence.”


Published on October 8, 2015


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