The mother of a teenage Saudi protester sentenced to crucifixion has begged Barack Obama to intervene to save her son’s life.
In her first interview with foreign media, Nusra al-Ahmed, the mother of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, whose case has reverberated around the world, described the intended punishment as “savage” and “backwards in the extreme”.
Human rights groups including Amnesty International and Reprieve, the US talkshow host Bill Maher and the British prime minister, David Cameron, have all weighed in with calls for clemency to stop Nimr, who was 17 at the time of his arrest, from being beheaded and then crucified.
The death sentence comes as the oil-rich state faces increasing diplomatic scrutiny over the severity of its penal system and as it takes over the chair of the UN human rights council.
Asked how she was coping knowing that at any moment her son could be put to death following the Saudi supreme court’s rejection of his appeal, Ahmed said: “For other people every hour is composed of 60 minutes, but for me every hour is 60 beats of pain.”
She said her son had been detained sometime after joining Shia demonstrators in the eastern coastal city of Qatif seeking equal religious rights in the Sunni-majority country.
The official charges levelled against Nimr included attending a protest, using his phone to encourage further support for the demonstrations and possessing a gun, an accusation which the family strongly denies.
“They were peaceful and civilised and legitimate and so my fear was, I was afraid for my son, but inside I agreed with them in principle.”
She said that before his arrest Nimr was a quick learner who loved swimming, football and photography, and also a devoted son. “At home when he saw me cooking … he would offer to help me cook, cut the onion or slice the potatoes. This was his temperament completely.”
Visiting after his arrest, she alleged he had been tortured. “When I visited my son for the first time I didn’t recognise him. I didn’t know whether this really was my son Ali or not. I could clearly see a wound on his forehead. Another wound in his nose. They disfigured it. Even his body, he was too thin.”
“[When] I started talking to him [he told me that] during the interrogation [he was] being kicked, slapped, of course his teeth fell out … For a month he was peeing blood. He said he felt like a mass of pain, his body was no more.”
She still had hope her son could be saved from his punishment imposed under Saudi’s sharia penal system and described the sentence – which would involve him being beheaded before his decapitated body is hung from a cross in public – as having been plucked out of the dark ages.
“I feel that one’s very being is repelled at such a ruling … It’s backwards in the extreme. No sane and normal human being would rule against a child of 17 years old using such a sentence. And why? He didn’t shed any blood, he didn’t steal any property. Where did they get it [this sentence]? From the dark ages?”
She believes the sentence was intended to punish her son for his Shia faith. “I don’t expect that anyone normal and sane has heard of such a thing, [no] normal person who is not sectarian would find such a thing acceptable. That’s why you find that always it’s sectarian people who are happy with such things because he’s a Shia.”
Calling on the US president to intervene she said: “He is the head of this world and he can, he can interfere and rescue my son … To rescue someone from harm, there is nothing greater than that. I mean my son and I are simple people and we don’t carry any significance in this world but despite that, if he [Obama] carried out this act, I feel it would raise his esteem in the eyes of the world. He would be rescuing us from a great tragedy.”
On Tuesday the UK government said it would be withdrawing its bid for a £5.9m contract to deliver training for Saudi prisons. That move came on the same day that Cameron said he would write to Riyadh to implore Saudi authorities not to carry out a punishment of 360 lashes on a British pensioner caught transporting homemade wine in his car. Last week Cameron appealed to the newly crowned king not to carry out the death sentence on Nimr.
Speaking on BBC’s Newsnight on Friday the Saudi ambassador to the UN, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, said he would not talk about Nimr’s case because the “legal process has not been exhausted”, but said the matter was one for Saudi Arabia alone.
“We respectfully request the world to respect our systems and our judicial processes, and our laws and regulations, and not to interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.”
Mouallimi said the kingdom would uphold the UN charter on human rights. “The application of sharia law as far as human rights is concerned is the highest form of human rights,” he said, adding: “We believe that we are holding ourselves to the highest standards. If that doesn’t please someone here or there, that’s their problem not ours.”
The Saudi UK embassy has said it rejects “any form of interference in its internal affairs”.
Nusra al-Ahmed said she was grateful for the support she had received from across Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and described the intervention by the UK’s leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, during his inaugural speech to his party conference as a “beautiful gesture”.
During the speech Corbyn called on Cameron to take up Nimr’s case with the Saudi authorities “to prevent a grave injustice”.
Ahmed said she hoped Corbyn “continues to demand or to canvass the kingdom of Saudi Arabia regarding this issue and this is a very humane act from him.”
Nimr’s case now rests in the hands of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who is facing dissension from within the sprawling royal family just 10 months after taking the throne.
Asked whether she had a message for him, Ahmed said, “I wish that King Salman would lift this pain from my son … The king is also a father, and he should be the first one to feel sympathy for us.”