A Saudi Arabian student who was arrested five years ago as he was about to fly to Michigan to attend college is believed to be facing imminent execution by beheading, officials say.
Mujtaba Al-Sweikat, who was 17 when he was detained at King Fahd International Airport in 2012, was moved Friday from detention in Dammam to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where executions by beheading customarily take place.
Earlier that year, Al-Sweikat allegedly attended a pro-democracy rally, which led to his arrest.
Al-Sweikat intended to visit Western Michigan University, where he had applied as a student, according to Reprieve, an international human rights group that has offices in New York and London and operates with partners around the world. He was later accepted by the university as a student. The Free Press has seen a copy of the acceptance letter from Western.
Western Michigan confirmed Al-Sweikat had been accepted to the university in 2013, but never attended.
"We were stunned to learn, for the first time today, of this situation," Western Michigan spokeswoman Cheryl Roland said in a statement to the Free Press. "It is not unusual for an admitted student to opt out of enrolling at the last minute, so we had no idea there was such a troubling reason behind this student's failure to come to campus."
Human rights groups said the execution is troubling.
"The increasingly brutal Saudi Arabian regime has ramped up executions for protest-related offences in recent days, and this latest move is extremely worrying," said Maya Foa, director of Reprieve. "Mujtaba was a promising 17-year-old boy on his way to study in Michigan when he was arrested, beaten, and later sentenced to death on the basis of a 'confession' extracted through torture. He now faces the imminent threat of beheading along with 14 others, including at least one other juvenile and a young disabled man.
Foa said the executions would constitute an appalling breach of international law. Foa urged President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to "use their close ties to Saudi Arabia to make clear that these egregious abuses must stop — and the imminent executions be immediately stayed."
The American Federation of Teachers also urged Trump to get involved.
“Saudi Arabia’s threat to behead its own citizens for attending an anti-government protest is an unthinkable and despicable violation of international law and basic humanity," AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement. "This group includes two youths — one of whom, Mujtaba’a al-Sweikat, was at the airport coming to the United States to attend college when he was arrested — a man with disabilities, and 11 other people. People must have a right to speak and associate freely. Should these executions occur, Saudi Arabia should be considered a pariah nation by the world.
"We implore President Trump, as the standard-bearer for our great nation, to do everything in his power to stop the atrocities that may otherwise take place in Saudi Arabia.”
Western Michigan joined the call for Trump to get involved.
"The AFT information makes it clear that the critical national political figures with influence in such a situation are informed," Roland said. "We join the AFT in urging them to use that influence to ask the Saudi government to exhibit compassion."
Al-Sweikat was not allowed access to a lawyer at any point before or during the interrogations, according to Reprieve. He was forced to sign a “confession” document in relation to several alleged offenses, including attendance at protests. If he refused to admit to any allegations, he was again beaten, tortured and subjected to verbal abuse.
Initial reports were that Mujtaba was on his way to attend the University of Michigan. U-M officials spent 18 hours searching records going back several years at all of its campuses and were unable to locate him as a student — either one who enrolled or had been accepted, a spokeswoman told the Free Press.
Mujtaba is part of a group facing execution by beheading for offenses related to attending protests, Reprieve said. Reprieve obtained information about Mujtaba and the others from his friends.
They were convicted and sentenced to death by Saudi Arabia’s controversial Specialised Criminal Court, which, although established to hear terrorism cases, has been used by authorities to silent dissent through the use of the death penalty, Reprieve said.
All 14 men and boys were transferred recently to Riyadh from Dammam Mabahith prison in preparation for their execution. However, the current execution practice is so shrouded in secrecy that not even their families know when they will be executed; only the King, who issues a decree ordering their execution, knows, Reprieve said in a briefing shared with the Free Press.
Four others were executed July 12 for similar protest-related charges.
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