Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr was a Muslim cleric, human rights defender, and peaceful opposition leader who was executed by the Saudi government on 2 January 2016. He became popular for his fiery sermons, which decried systematic discrimination against Saudi Arabia’s minorities and called for justice and equality for all Saudi citizens. During the Arab Spring, he became widely known as a leader of Saudi Arabia’s protest movement who demanded political reforms, denounced ongoing repression, and peacefully challenged the government.
Sheikh Nimr began to draw attention in the late 2000s for his criticism of injustice in Saudi Arabia. In a January 2008 speech, he reportedly called for the formation of a “righteous opposition front” to combat social corruption and political marginalization of Shia in Saudi Arabia. His words soon put him in the international spotlight. In August 2008, a US State Department political officer reportedly set up a meeting with Nimr to discuss his political positions and his growing following. In the meeting, Sheikh Nimr stated that he would always support “the people” in any conflict with the government, while also condemning the use of violence and advocating for peaceful change.
In February 2009, clashes between Sunni and Shia pilgrims erupted in Medina, leading to injuries and arrests. Security forces responded by instructing Eastern Province leaders to refrain from communal prayers. Instead, Sheikh Nimr delivered a widely publicized sermon on 13 March 2009 in which he blamed the Saudi leadership for the Medina incident. He suggested that if the government continued to employ violence against its citizens and to deny them equal rights, the Eastern Province might consider greater autonomy.
In February 2011, set against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, Saudi Shia took to the streets in the Eastern Province to demand the release of political prisoners. Protests quickly escalated, and by March, nationwide demonstrations had materialized on a small scale. Sheikh Nimr endorsed the protests. Emerging from hiding, he delivered a sermon on 25 February 2011 calling for political and religious reforms, denouncing ongoing repression, and urging youth protesters to use peaceful means to call for change. During the protests, Sheikh Nimr called for “the roar of the word” against authorities rather than the use of weapons, emphasizing the need for peaceful resistance in the face of state violence. As protests continued, Sheikh Nimr became a figurehead of the movement.
In June 2012, Sheikh Nimr delivered a sermon following the death of Crown Prince Nayef Abdulaziz Al Saud. In the sermon, he detailed the injustices committed by the Ministry of Interior under the late Crown Prince. Just weeks later, on 8 July 2012, Saudi security forces violently arrested Sheikh Nimr in Awamiyya. Despite Sheikh Nimr’s consistent stance against violence, Saudi authorities claim that Sheikh Nimr resisted arrest and was involved in a gun battle that resulted in his injuries. Human rights organizations claim that armed soldiers chased Sheikh Nimr’s car until he crashed, forced him out of the car, and shot him.
Authorities held Sheikh Nimr in an isolation cell in a security forces prison hospital for much of his time in detention. For the first few months, they did not allow him to speak with family members. He did not receive adequate treatment for the gunshot wound in his leg, leading to further complications and partial paralysis.
More than eight months after his arrest, the Saudi judiciary held its first hearing before the Specialized Criminal Court, a national security tribunal ostensibly tasked with prosecuting terrorism cases. The prosecutor demanded the death sentence under charges that included breaking allegiance with the ruler, inciting sectarian strife, and supporting rioting. The prosecutor condemned Sheikh Nimr’s sermons for disrupting national unity, insulting the king, and calling for the overthrow of the ruling system. Nevertheless, an Amnesty International review of the sermons found that he had neither exceeded the limits of peaceful free expression nor advocated for violent resistance.
Court proceedings continued over a series of hearings throughout 2013 and 2014 in which authorities repeatedly violated Sheikh Nimr’s right to a fair trial. The state reportedly did not originally submit the charges against Sheikh Nimr to his defense team. In several instances, the judge either entirely failed to notify the defense team about hearings or notified the defense only a day in advance. Sources informed ADHRB that, in August 2014, the judiciary appointed a new judge, who ordered the prosecutor to summon the policemen who had arrested Nimr. The policemen did not appear in court, denying the defense team the opportunity to question eyewitnesses. Finally, on 15 October 2014, the judge sentenced Sheikh Nimr to death for disobeying the ruler, inciting sectarian strife, and encouraging demonstrations.
On 16 November 2014, Sheikh Nimr submitted a 50-page handwritten appeal, but on 4 March 2015, Saudi media announced that the appeals court would not object to the SCC’s original ruling. On 2 January 2016, the Government of Saudi Arabia executed Sheikh Nimr.
United Nations human rights experts weighed in on the trial proceedings on multiple occasions. In August 2014, the experts expressed concern that the death penalty may have been imposed and would be carried out after proceedings that “did not comply fully with international human rights law standards.” They additionally expressed concern that Sheikh Nimr was not receiving the medical care he required. In another communication in November 2014, the UN experts reiterated their concern over the judicial proceedings and lack of medical care, and further expressed concern at allegations of torture. On 2 January 2016, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that he was “deeply dismayed” by Saudi Arabia’s decision to execute Sheikh Nimr and urged Saudi Arabia to commute all death sentences imposed in the kingdom.
The arrest, trial, and execution of Sheikh Nimr violated his international rights to a fair trial, freedom from arbitrary detention, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression. Saudi Arabia must discontinue its use of the death penalty against peaceful activists and cease its practice of trying nonviolent opposition figures before national security courts. The international community must hold Saudi Arabia accountable to its human rights commitments and pressure the kingdom to protect its citizens’ rights to free and peaceful expression.