Ten Nobel laureates from across the world have called on Saudi Arabia to hold off on the execution of 14 Shia citizens convicted of protest-related charges.
In an open letter released late Friday, the laureates urged King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, his son, to "extend the hand of mercy" and refrain from ratifying the death sentences.
"Mujtaba al-Sweika, a bright 18-year-old student in Saudi Arabia, was on his way to visit Western Michigan University in 2012 when he was arrested in the airport in Riyadh. Among his charges is starting a Facebook group and posting images of a demonstration online," read the letter.
"Another defendant, Ali al-Nimr, was charged with setting up a Blackberry page named 'The Liberals' and posting photos of the demonstrations, inviting people to participate," it added.
The signatories to the letter include anti-apartheid leader Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman, Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi, former East Timor president Jose Ramos-Horta, US anti-landmine activist Jody Williams, Indian children's rights activist Kailash Satyarthi, South African former president F.W. De Klerk, Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, Polish labor rights activist Lech Walesa and peace activist Mairead Maguire of Northern Ireland.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have accused Saudi authorities of getting confessions from the defendants under torture and of failing to hold fair trials for them.
The 14 Shia men now face imminent risk of execution after Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court upheld their death sentences in mid-July.
According to the families of the defendants, they were transferred from Dammam to Riyadh’s Ha’ir prison on July 15 without any explanation. Some of the defendants have been kept in solitary confinement without any contact with the outside world.
The 14 men were among 24 defendants in a mass trial known as the “Qatif 24” case. In June 2016, the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced the Shia men to death.
The defendants were convicted based on confessions they later repudiated in court. They said the confessions were made under torture.
Saudi media claim that the 24 men were members of a “terrorism cell,” which targeted security forces.
On August 4, the Justice Ministry defended judicial authorities’ handling of the case, arguing that the sentences were reviewed and approved by 13 separate judges.
The ministry, however, did not provide any explanation about the allegations that the confessions were made under torture, and why the judges dismissed the torture reports without any investigation.
HRW has warned that Saudi Arabia’s execution rate has accelerated since the country’s leadership change on June 21, saying the kingdom has executed 35 people during the period, compared with 39 in the first half of 2017.
Saudi Arabia carried out 153 executions across the kingdom last year. In the most stunning case of executions in 2016, Saudi Arabia executed on January 2 Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr along with 46 other people in defiance of international calls for the release of the prominent Shia cleric and other jailed political dissidents in the kingdom.
Saudi officials execute convicts by sword and then dangle their corpses from a helicopter to make sure the public could see the result of the execution.
According to Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia has one of the highest execution rates in the world.
HRW has on multiple occasions called on the Saudi regime to abolish its “ghastly” beheadings.