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Outrage Mounts as Saudi Arabia Plans Imminent Executions for 14 Accused Pro-Democracy Protesters

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As President Trump vows not to let human rights concerns interfere with U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, the country is set to execute 14 men, including Mujtaba’a al-Sweikat, who was only 17 when he was sentenced to death five years ago. He had planned to visit and attend Western Michigan University but was detained by airport authorities in Saudi Arabia for allegedly attending a pro-democracy rally earlier the same year. We speak with Maya Foa, director of the legal charity Reprieve. We also speak with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which is speaking out against the planned execution.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Saudi Arabia, where 14 men accused of taking part in protests are reportedly facing imminent execution. The group includes Munir al-Adam, who is half-deaf and partially blind, and Mujtaba’a al-Sweikat, who was only 17 when he was sentenced to death five years ago in 2012. Majtaba’a had planned to visit Western Michigan University, where he had applied for admission, but was detained by airport authorities in Saudi Arabia for allegedly attending a pro-democracy rally earlier the same year. He was accepted by the university as a student in 2013 but was not able to attend.

Following President Trump’s visit earlier this year, a Saudi criminal court upheld several death sentences handed down to protesters. During Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May—his first trip abroad as president—he suggested human rights concerns would not interfere with U.S.-Saudi relations.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are not here to lecture. We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership, based on shared interests and values, to pursue a better future for all of us.

AMY GOODMAN: Saudi Arabia has one of the highest execution rates in the world. Human rights organizations say prisoners are often tortured into making false confessions and convicted in secret trials. Rights groups have urged the Trump administration to use its ties to the kingdom to prevent further abuses and stay the executions.

To talk more about the death penalty in Saudi Arabia and the possible execution of these 14 men, we’re joined by two guests. In London, Maya Foa is with us, director of the international legal charity Reprieve. And here in New York, we’re joined by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Maya Foa in London. Talk about who these men are and why you believe that their execution is imminent.

MAYA FOA: Well, these 14 men—thank you. These 14 men, many of them very young, some of them under 18 when they were arrested by Saudi forces, are all alleged to have been involved in protest-related offenses. Now, to give you a couple of examples of what that means, we had another case of a young man called Ali al-Nimr, who was facing imminent execution last year. He’s still in danger. He’s not among the 14. But his charge sheet explained that among the offenses that had rendered him—that had made him death-eligible were inviting people to the protest on his Blackberry, administering first aid on his Blackberry—not on his Blackberry, administering first aid to protesters at the protest.

There were offenses in the case of, that you mentioned, Mujtaba’a—he was accused of attending the protest and inviting others to the protest. These are clearly not offenses that we would deem—that we wouldn’t deem them offenses at all, let alone worthy of sentencing people to death. Mujtaba’a al-Sweikat, who you mentioned in the intro, was 17 years old when he was allegedly at this protest. He had a future in America. He had been admitted to two colleges. Two universities had given him placements. And he was actually due to travel over to the U.S. He was in the airport on his way there to go and look at the two campuses and decide where he wanted to go, when he was arrested by Saudi forces. He was brutally tortured, so much so that they broke his shoulder. They denied him first aid. And, of course, the torture was intended to get him to confess to this so-called crime of attending the protest.


MAYA FOA: He gave a confession after torture, which is not admissible under international law or Saudi’s own law. He was later sentenced to death. And now he and 13 others look to be executed at any moment—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Maya, I wanted to ask you—a report that you—that you issued recently—

MAYA FOA: —if the international community is not able to intervene and call on the kingdom to halt these executions.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Maya, a report that your organization issued recently says that as many as 40 percent of the people executed in Saudi Arabia are executed for nonviolent offenses like participating in protests?

MAYA FOA: That’s absolutely right. We’ve seen a massive uptick in executions and death sentences for nonviolent protest offenses. It looks very much to us like an attempt to quell any kind of dissent. Any kind of free speech, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly are being entirely eradicated in Saudi Arabia. On the 2nd of January last year, there were 47 people executed in a mass execution on one day. Among those were numerous so-called protesters and a couple of juveniles, as well, at least six of them. One of them, Ali al-Ribh, was dragged out of school by the police. He was then, again, brutally tortured, forced to confess, and then executed without anybody knowing, so that his family only found out about the execution of their son, after the execution itself, from newspaper reports. To date, they still haven’t been told where his body is. They never got to see it, never got to give him a burial. They don’t know where he was buried or even how he was executed. And that young man, that child, was executed for apparently attending a protest.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Randi Weingarten, the AFT weighing in on this issue, the importance, and why your union is involved in this issue?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: So, Maya—so, first off, Reprieve is our heroes. And Maya got to one of our staffers over the weekend. In fact, we represent—we are the largest higher education union in the United States. And as you know, Juan, you know, with what we did in terms of students at Rutgers, who are DACAmented, and fighting for them, we have this reputation now of making sure that we fight for our students and have multinational, multiethnic universities. And so, Reprieve got in touch with our locals out in—first, in the University of Michigan, because we thought that he was going to the University of Michigan, and then we found out later it was Western Michigan. We represent grad students, adjuncts, professors. And we just, on Saturday, just went into motion and tried to figure out how to engage—you know, that’s kind of funny, with the Trump administration, ironic—but how to engage the State Department, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and do it in every way we could in terms of shining the light, because if we don’t do that, and as Maya said, what happens is all this gets done in absolute secrecy, all to—intentionally to suppress freedom of speech. And so, our union is on it. And we have tried to find ways to make sure that the Saudi government knows that the American government is watching this and is fighting this. And that’s what we’re trying to do in every way we can.

Obviously, this is a suppression of speech. These are our values. These should be values internationally. And equally, if not more important, how does anyone—how does any country be in the community of countries and behead people? And ultimately, I would say, if anybody in Saudi Arabia is watching, how do you fight terrorism, how do you fight ISIS, how do you fight all of this, if you are beheading people? And so, there is a moral issue here, as well as just us wanting to fight for this child. This child. He’s 17. When he got into university, he was 17 years old. He has been in jail. And what Reprieve has found, because—historically, because what they know, is that the moment that people are moved to Riyadh, the moment that people are moved to the capital, then we don’t know if their beheading is imminent or their death is imminent.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Maya Foa, what are you calling for now? And, Randi Weingarten, have you reached anyone in the Trump administration, since they have close ties to Saudi Arabia?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Yes, we actually—between the senators and us, we actually reached people. We’re—and Maya, you know, we are trying to see if we can get someone to visit this youngster. So we are—you know, we did actually reach people over the weekend. But as I said, Maya and Reprieve are—we’re working very closely with them.

AMY GOODMAN: Maya, what you’re calling for now and the indications to you that the execution is imminent, with the removal of the men, and specifically Mujtaba’a, from the prison to Riyadh, which is a sign of imminent execution?

MAYA FOA: That’s absolutely right. We are extremely concerned about Mujtaba’a and the 13 other men, young men, who are now potentially facing imminent beheading and execution. We are calling on the international community to raise these cases, to raise them with the new prince in Saudi Arabia, to raise them with the American government. All of Saudi Arabia’s allies need to be saying that it is not acceptable to be beheading and killing children, killing people who have simply—their only crime is to have attended a protest, to have expressed a view about democracy, to have exercised their democratic right to free speech, that it is not acceptable to quell dissent in this way and to carry out these executions in secret, without informing the family, in a manner that the U.N. has said is tantamount to torture. We need to hear from the allies.

Donald Trump, at the head of this program, you had quoted him saying that we share values. Well, I would very much hope that the execution of children for attending protests, the execution of disabled people, people who have been disabled through torture they have received at the hands of the Saudi authorities, that American values are not in killing those people, that America still stands for democracy, for freedom of speech, for freedom of assembly, and that we do not support the executions, the unlawful executions, of children, of peaceful protesters, of vulnerable people, like disabled Munir al-Adam. And I would hope that we can all call on the Saudi authorities to halt these imminent executions of these 14 individuals immediately and give them a permanent stay of execution.

AMY GOODMAN: Maya Foa, we want to thank you for being with us, director of Reprieve, speaking to us from London. And, Randi Weingarten, we’d like to ask you to stay with us. After break, we want to talk to you about your assessment of the DeVos administration. That’s Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Stay with us.

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