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Mujtaba al-Sweikat

Photo courtesy of the human rights group Reprieve

He was 17 years old, at the airport to catch a flight to the U.S., where he planned to visit colleges and hoped to attend Western Michigan University, where he subsequently gained admission. But he was arrested for crimes related to participation in a pro-democracy protest before he could board the plane.

Last week Saudi Arabia announced Mujtaba al-Sweikat was one of 37 people executed for terrorism-related crimes. The human rights group Reprieve says al-Sweikat, who was arrested in December 2012, was convicted on the basis of a confession obtained by torture.

CNN reported on court documents it obtained regarding al-Sweikat’s prosecution. According to the documents obtained by the broadcaster, al-Sweikat’s father, who served as his lawyer, portrayed his son as a diligent student, loyal to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who completed his final high school exams with a score of 94 percent. Although al-Sweikat confessed to throwing Molotov cocktails at security forces and running a chat group to help organize demonstrations, his father claimed in reality he joined the demonstrations just twice, for five minutes each time.

"He was subjected to psychological and physical abuse, which drained his strength," his father reportedly said. "The interrogator dictated the confession to Sweikat and forced him to sign it so that the torture would stop. He signed it."

United Nations human rights officials had previously written to Saudi officials regarding al-Sweikat’s case, using an alternative spelling of his name. In November 2016, they wrote in regard to information they had received that he “was routinely subjected to torture including suspension from his hands and feet, sleep deprivation, severe beatings with cables and shoes, cigarettes burns and pouring of cold water on his body during winter. He was put in solitary confinement for three months. As a result, Mr. Suwaiket suffers from a broken shoulder, sustained pain in back and knees and blood deficiency due to insufficient nutrition. He has been deprived of any medical care. Mr. Suwaiket was reportedly subjected to acts of torture until he confessed to armed disobedience against the king and to attacking, shooting and injuring security forces, civilians and passers-by … On 1 June 2016, after several hearings, Mr. Suwaiket was convicted and sentenced to death by the [Specialized Criminal Court], on the sole basis of the confession extracted under torture.”

The letter from the U.N. officials said that while they did not want to prejudge the accuracy of the accusations regarding al-Sweikat’s treatment, they were concerned about the decision to impose the death penalty in light of international human right conventions related to fair trials, due process, torture and protection of the rights of children (as al-Sweikat was a juvenile at the time the alleged crimes were committed).

A subsequent letter from U.N. officials, sent in July 2017 in relation to multiple cases, including al-Sweikat’s, faulted judges for failing to investigate the allegations of torture and forced confessions. “While it was raised in court that the confessions were forced and had been obtained under torture, no investigation was initiated by the judges. Instead the forced confessions were admitted as evidence and used as the basis for their convictions,” they wrote.

In a written response, Saudi Arabia’s mission to the U.N. said that al-Sweikat was not subjected to torture or ill treatment. They said the claim his shoulder was broken was false and that he suffered from shoulder-related pain for five years prior to his arrest due to “sports-related activities.”

Saudi government officials also denied that his confession was extracted through torture and said he confessed “of his own free will.” They said that the judge "did not rely solely on the confession as evidence in his judgment but on the evidence provided, including the arrest and investigation records, witness statements, and the deliberations and statements made during the judicial proceedings."

The Saudi mission wrote, “The lower court judgment sentenced Mojtaba Suwaiket to death after convicting him of committing crimes such as: manufacturing firebombs (Molotov cocktails) and supplying them to others for use against law enforcement officers; throwing firebombs at law enforcement officers and their vehicles; involvement in the targeting of a security patrol by opening fire on it; monitoring police officers, their location and their movements and transmitting the information to members of another cell who used it to implement one of their operations; concealment of wanted individuals charged with opening fire on security patrols and persons charged with launching attacks on private property; concealment of persons charged with setting fire to a security vehicle and stealing a machine gun and bulletproof vest from it.”

In a subsequent communication, the Saudi mission said al-Sweikat's death sentence was upheld on appeal by the Supreme Court, rendering it “final and enforceable.”

Western Michigan previously confirmed al-Sweikat was admitted in 2013 but never enrolled. A university spokeswoman, Paula Davis, said Monday he was an applicant for pre-finance studies and English language. “We learned about his shocking death last week and grieve this tragic loss of a young life full of potential,” she said.

The American Federation of Teachers, which represents Western Michigan part-time faculty, was involved in campaigning for al-Sweikat’s release.

“Saudi Arabia’s sickening criminal beheading of a young student, after he was tortured and held in solitary confinement for years, is a despicable violation of international law and basic humanity,” Randi Weingarten, the AFT president, said in a statement last week. “Condemned at 17, Mujtaba al-Sweikat was planning to attend Western Michigan University when he was arrested after attending a peaceful protest rally. Today, we discover this young man has been executed, along with more than 30 others, in a ghastly display of state brutality.”

“If it was not already clear, Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has moved to the top tier of the bloodiest regimes in world history,” she said. “We demand the U.S. government immediately condemn, in every way and with every means, this disgusting and outrageous crime.”

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