DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP/WOOD) — A young Saudi man who was accepted at Western Michigan University and 13 other minority Shiites are facing possible execution in the kingdom in a case that has drawn the attention of a major U.S. teachers’ union.
The American Federation of Teachers said in a statement that Mujtaba al-Sweikat was detained in 2012 in an airport in Saudi Arabia on his way to the U.S. to attend WMU. Democratic Rep. Jon Hoadley of Kalamazoo says al-Sweikat was arrested for his involvement in a pro-democracy rally.
A WMU spokeswoman told 24 Hour News 8 al-Sweikat applied as an undergraduate in pre-finance in 2012. She said he was accepted in January 2013 to begin classes in the summer, but he never enrolled.
The teachers’ union, which says it represents 1.6 million members nationwide, is urging President Donald Trump to demand that Saudi Arabia halt the execution of al-Sweikat and the others convicted on charges related to violent protests and clashes with police in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, which is heavily populated by minority Shiite Muslims.
Hoadley has also joined the call for action, releasing the following statement Wednesday:
“I am absolutely horrified to hear of what Mujtaba Al-Sweikat and 13 other men are now facing, and I am aggressively urging the U.S. President and our federal government to intervene immediately to stop these executions and ensure the death sentences are commuted. Any government that stands idly by while a young man loses his life in such a barbaric and arcane way, for no real crime, is complicit in his death. In this age of heightened partisanship, there is often a struggle for those in both parties to find common ground with each other. Yet if we’re going to, I cannot imagine a more fitting place than in working to stop the unfair execution of someone who was a child when they were detained. Mujtaba has a bright future ahead of him, and if ever there was a time for the President to demonstrate the democratic ideals and freedoms he spoke so highly of on the campaign trail, it would be when someone’s life is at stake for simply attending a pro-democracy rally. I will be fighting every day to see that this boy and all 13 others are saved, and I urge the President and all my colleagues to join me.”
The Saudi government typically does not comment on such cases.
Thousands of Saudi Shiites took to the streets in 2011 and 2012 during an upswell of protests across parts of the Arab world to demand greater rights and better government services.
Many Shiites in Saudi Arabia have complained of discrimination, with tensions and violence spiking in recent weeks in the restive town of al-Awamiya. Prominent ultraconservative Sunni Muslim clerics in Saudi Arabia have in the past referred to Shiites as apostates, and Shiite protesters have also been accused of being allied with the kingdom’s rival, Iran.
The London-based advocacy group Reprieve told The Associated Press on Tuesday that al-Sweikat was 17 at the time of his arrest. Reprieve said al-Sweikat was charged with crimes including throwing makeshift firebombs at police, targeting security patrols in al-Awamiya, withholding information from police about rioters, taking part in organizing protests and disobeying the ruler — charges that can all carry the death penalty under Saudi Arabia’s sweeping anti-terror law.
Reprieve, which has spoken to a person who saw the charge document, said al-Sweikat and the others convicted of similar offenses now face “imminent execution based on false confessions extracted through torture in a secretive trial.”
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released statements last month calling the men’s trial “grossly unfair.” They said a court of appeals has upheld the convictions and death sentences.
According to Reprieve the 14 were recently moved to the capital, Riyadh, from another prison, suggesting they could be executed soon.
Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s highest execution rates. On July 11 the kingdom executed four Shiites for protest-related violence and attacks on police.
In January 2016 the kingdom executed 47 prisoners convicted of terrorism-related offenses including prominent Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who had led protests in al-Awamiya against the government and ultraconservative Sunni clerics. He was charged with inciting violence against security forces and using his sermons to sow sedition, allegations he denied and said were politically motivated.