An Interview with Ali’s father, Abu Baquer al-Nimr, about his son’s imprisonment and imminent execution.
by Paul Gottinger
Ali al-Nimr was just a teenager when he participated in Saudi Arabia’s “Arab Spring” protests. In 2011, Ali joined the hundreds of others in Eastern Saudi Arabia calling for greater democracy and improved rights for Shia. He marched peacefully, but was arrested, sentenced in a political court as a terrorist, and now faces crucifixion. This interview was conducted in September of 2015. Special thanks to my translator Ayman Hashesh.
Can you tell me about Ali?
Ali was a normal child, like every child in the world, and had the same hobbies as other children his age. He liked riding his bike and playing video games. Unfortunately, since he was arrested he, of course, has been unable to do these things. He was arrested when he was just 16, but now is prevented from doing all the normal things someone his age should be doing.
Can you tell me about the last time you saw Ali?
The last time my wife and I saw Ali was last Friday during the Eid al-Adha. They allowed a prison visitation for the holiday. We were only allowed to see Ali for ten minutes. When his mother tried to tell him about the news that the execution order has been issued by the government he interrupted her and told her that he already knew. He told us he had accepted this news with a smile on his face and tried to comfort his mother. Ali said he has accepted God’s will and that he is sure that God will be much more merciful to him.
How Has Ali been treated in prison?
Ali has been mistreated in prison, unfortunately this is common throughout the Arab world. Often prisoners are tortured until they confess to a crime. I understand that this could somehow happen to an adult, but for this to happen to a child is horrifying.
When Ali first saw us after months of being in jail, he told us that he would rather die than to continue being so badly tortured in jail. Ali knows the names of the security officers that tortured him, but there is no government institution to which we can complain to so that those who hurt Ali and the other prisoners can be held accountable. So, the torture of prisoners will continue. This is a problem throughout the Arab world.
Are you afraid that you may be putting yourself in danger by speaking out for Ali?
I’ve already lost the important thing in my life, so I can’t be concerned with small things anymore, and I’m not afraid to speak out on the serious injustice suffered by Ali and the many other people who were arrested. Following the Arab Spring uprising in Eastern Saudi Arabia 300 boys and men were arrested, mostly between the ages of 15 and 50 years old. Ali was the youngest, just 16 at the time of his arrest.
Can you tell me about Ali’s trial?
I hoped the judge would be fair and neutral to Ali, but unfortunately the judge wasn’t independent. The judge ruled against Ali and was unfair. As is the case in most of the Arab world, the judge was not independent. In Saudi Arabia and in most of the Arab world, the judges usually rule in favor of the government.”
In Saudi Arabia there are three levels of courts. The primary court which consists of three judges, which ruled that Ali should be executed. There is the appeals court which consists of 5 judges, and they also ruled Ali should be executed. There is also the Supreme court, which consists of 5 judges. The Supreme Court also ruled that Ali should be executed. So the only option now for Ali to be saved is if the King doesn’t sign the order for Ali’s execution.
How has Ali’s imprisonment affected your family?
Of course we are sad because Ali was just a boy when he was taken, and hasn’t been able to complete his education and do the normal things he should be doing at his age. [Note: As of December 2016, Ali has finished High school, and is now studying for his Bacheror’s degree in sociology while on death row.]
I remember when Ali’s mother was trying to comfort him when he heard about the execution order. Ali turned to me and said, “Father I’m not the only person in the world who has suffered injustice and been falsely prosecuted around the world.” I was shocked by his response. How could a 20 year-old boy talk like this? It’s unbelievable. To be so unconcerned with his own situation, but be thinking only for others who are suffering.
When he was 14 he had a bicycle and he was always riding his bike everywhere. This bicycle is now in the house. Every time I leave or enter the house I see the bicycle. I can’t remove the bike because I can’t bear the thought of being separated from the only part of Ali that we have with us in the house. I still hold out hope that one day Ali will return and ride the bike again. Ali is a beautiful human being.
Can you tell me about why Ali was protesting during the Arab Spring?
We were hopeful during the Arab Spring because we were pro-democracy. We wanted a more democratic system in Saudi Arabia. But hundreds of the demonstrators were arrested, with most of them still in prison. These prisoners are all from the same region as Ali. The families of all these prisoners are, of course, very upset.
Ali was arrested for political reasons. Many of the accusation relate to Ali’s uncle Sheik Nimr Baqir Al-Nimr. Sheik al-Nimr criticized the government. Ali’s arrest is to stop Sheik Nimr from criticizing the Saudi Government.
He never called for any kind of violence, but since the government here is not used to having anyone criticize them, so they wanted to arrest Sheik al-Nimr.
The government of has accused Ali of crimes, which would be impossible for him to commit. He was accused of engaging in violence, attacking police officers taking guns and uniforms from many police officers. [Note: Ali was also accused of manufacturing weapons, participating in a rally, and providing first aid (bandages) to those who participated in the rally.]
All of this is impossible. Ali was a 16-year-old boy. How could he steal the weapons and uniforms from an entire police patrol? It’s shameful the government has accused Ali of this.
There has been a long history of discrimination against Shia in Saudi Arabia. When the Arab Spring started, the Shia in Saudi Arabia saw it as an opportunity, and acted on the spirit of the movement. People went out into the streets protesting in a peaceful way demanding an end to discrimination and increasing democracy. We thought some kind of democratic changes could come from the Arab Spring.
What message do you have for the people and governments of the West?
I hope the governments in the West can reach out in a positive way and calm way, to influence Saudi Arabia to free Ali. 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. I hope the King’s wisdom will prevail and he will release Ali. I hope the government’s of the West will take an action in the interest of human rights and call on Saudi Arabia to release Ali.
I hope the people in the West continue to gain awareness of the serious injustice, which Ali is suffering. I hope the people of the West pressure their governments to peacefully reach out to the government of Saudi Arabia and ask that they release Ali.
I’m worried that if Ali is executed it will be seen as a scar for the country of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. [Note: Saudi Arabia, a country with an atrocious human rights record, holds membership on the UN Human Rights Council, partly as a result of a secret vote-trading scheme Saudi Arabia had with the UK.]
Have you received any media coverage in Saudi Arabia?
The government owns all the media outlets in Saudi Arabia. The same person heads the ministry of Interior Affairs and the ministry of Media in Saudi Arabia. None of the media in Saudi Arabia will give me the chance to defend my son. Even before the judges ruled Ali was to be executed, media in the country were predicting, and even urging the judges to rule Ali should be executed. The media has carried a great deal of false information about Ali and about Ali’s case.
The only media, which has given me a chance to defend my son, has been media from Europe and the US.
Do you have hope that Ali will be freed?
It’s very difficult to know whether Ali will be freed. I can’t predict. I hope the King will see that Ali has been mistreated and has suffered injustice and stop the execution. I hope the King will demonstrate his wisdom and ultimately free Ali.
Saudi Arabia is part of the international community and the execution of Ali would really hurt the image of the Kingdom.
There are thousands of political prisoners in Saudi Arabia.
Dr Abdullah alhamd: 10 years in prison for cyberterrorism, i. e. blogging)
Waleed Abu alkhaer: Serving 20 years in prison for a) being Raif Badawi’s lawyer and b) opening a human rights organization.
Ra’af badawi: 10 years in prison and +1000 lashes for blogging about atheism. He has diabetes.. So his sister isn’t so sure if he will survive.
Fadel almnasif: Blogger and photographer, serving 15 years in prison for blogging about the state of affairs.
Alshikh ( Nemer alnemer ): killed Jan 2, 2006.
Alshikh (Tawfiq ala’amer ): Received an 8 year sentence for casually saying that we need a constitution in a sermon.
What would you say to King Salman if you could speak with him?
Before King Salman and King Abdullah there was King Fahd. King Fahd was a very wise person with a wise political point of view for all situations. Now I hope King Salman can act in a similar way. I hope that the King will not look at this situation only from a security perspective, but instead as a political issue. Ali is not a security problem, he is a young person robbed of his childhood.
Let us take the example of Syria. There has been war in Syria for 5 years now. Now everyone is losing. The regime is losing, the opposition are losing, and most importantly the people are losing. Everyone is thinking just from a military and security perspective. Their only concern is how to destroy the other. The conflict in Syria could continue for 50 years and still no one would win because no one is thinking from a political perspective.
When people think politically and make compromises, then everyone can benefit.
For example, there has been 35 years of hatred and poor communication between the US and Iran. But when they sat down around the same table they were able to find solutions to problems, and then everyone can win. I hope that King Salman will look at Ali’s case with this perspective.
A friend of the family told me that, “Ali’s family spent 3 years with no one knowing about Ali’s case. But now they see the light. They are scared, but they have hope now.”
What does Ali hope to do if he is freed?
Ali said to his mother if he has the chance to live he wants to be a lawyer or a political activist so he can get the chance to help others. Ali is a symbol of all people in the KSA who did know what injustice means. He wants to help others and save their lives even when he is facing death.