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Saudi Arabia: nephew of executed cleric released after decade in prison

Protesters march in front of the White House bring attention to the plight of three Saudi Arabian youths, Ali Al-Nimr, Dawood Al-Marhoon, and Abdullah Al-Saher, all sentenced to death on 20 April 2016 [PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images]
Protesters march in front of the White House bring attention to the plight of three Saudi Arabian youths, Ali Al-Nimr, Dawood Al-Marhoon, and Abdullah Al-Saher, all sentenced to death on 20 April 2016 [PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images]

Saudi Arabia has released Ali Al-Nimr, the nephew of influential Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr after nearly a decade in prison facing a possible death sentence, despite being a minor at the time of his alleged protest-related crimes. Sheikh Al-Nimr was executed in 2016.

Ali Al-Nimr was arrested in February 2012, when he was just 17 years old, during pro-democracy protests triggered by the Arab Spring. He was accused of "organising protests" and "teaching protestors how to do first aid".

In 2014, a specialist criminal court in Riyadh issued a death sentence for the more serious charges of possessing a firearm and armed robbery. However, Human Rights Watch has argued that these charges included vague accusations about attacking security forces, as well as "breaking allegiance with the ruler" and "repeating some chants against the state".

Nimr and two other young men from the kingdom's Shia minority who were arrested as minors had their death sentences commuted earlier this year. Despite repeated promises by the Saudi authorities that they have ended capital punishment for crimes committed by juveniles, another Shia, Mustafa Al-Darwish, was executed in June for attending protests when he too was just 17 years old.

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Footage has circulated on social media showing Nimr being greeted by his mother and other family members following his release. His father Mohammed confirmed the news on Twitter by praising God and thanking friends and family for supporting their cause. He also thanked Saudi Arabia's King Salman for "the historic decision in April 2020 to stop issuing and implementing death sentences against minors." Nimr's sister Zahra added, "After ten lean years, my brother [Ali] is free, thank God, thank you very much."

Hearing of Nimr's release, the Director of the human rights organisation Reprieve, Maya Foa, said: "Our first thoughts are with Ali and his family, who have waited so long for this day, for many years fearing he could be executed at any moment. We are overjoyed that Ali has been released, but he should never have been sent to prison at all, as his only 'crime' was attending protests to demand democratic rights."

Nevertheless, she added, Ali Al-Nimr's release is a tangible sign of progress. "However, the fact is, the Kingdom still sentences people to death for childhood crimes. Like Ali, Abdullah Al-Howaiti was arrested when he was a child, tortured into making a false confession and convicted in a deeply unfair trial. While he remains on death row, at risk of execution, Saudi claims to have ended the death penalty for children are an empty PR exercise."

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