Officials urge help for Saudi student facing beheading

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Officials in Michigan and a human rights group expressed worry Sunday for a Saudi Arabian national who they say had been looking into colleges in Michigan and Oregon but now is facing execution by beheading for expressing dissenting views in his country.

Mujaba’a al-Sweikat was tried and sentenced to death June 1, 2016. On May 25, Saudi Arabia’s high court confirmed his death sentence, the international human rights group said.

That group, Reprieve, reported Sunday that Sweikat had been moved to Riyadh, where beheading executions take place.

Al-Sweikat was on his way to United States to look into college at Western Michigan University and in Oregon when he was detained at King Fahd Airport and jailed in Damman for attending pro-democracy protests between 2011 and 2012.

“The increasingly brutal Saudi Arabian regime has ramped up executions for protest-related offenses in recent days, and this latest move is extremely worrying,” said Maya Foa, director with 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,” Foa said. “He now faces the imminent threat of beheading along with 14 others, including at least one other juvenile and a young disabled man.

“To carry out these executions would constitute an appalling breach of international law, and President Trump, Secretary Tillerson and Gov. Snyder should use their close ties to Saudi Arabia to make clear that these egregious abuses must stop — and the imminent executions be immediately stayed.”

Two American Federation of Teachers officials and Western Michigan University echoed Reprieve, calling on the Trump administration to intervene on Sweikat’s behalf, according to statements released Sunday.

“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,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “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,” said Weingarten. “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.”

AFT Michigan President David Hecker said: “President Trump displayed a close relationship with Saudi leaders during his recent trip to the kingdom. I urge him to use that relationship to plead with the new Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to halt the executions.”

The Detroit News reviewed a copy of Sweikat’s acceptance letter provided by Western Michigan University that indicated he had been approved for “pre-finance” studies in summer 2013. Sweikat, who was planning on taking classes leading to a bachelor’s degree, was directed to attend an International Student Orientation and Registration on May 2, 2013.

Cheryl Roland, a WMU spokeswoman, said Sweikat never enrolled in classes or attended WMU and there was no one on campus who knew him.

“We were stunned to learn, for the first time today, of this situation,” Roland said. “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.

“The AFT information makes it clear that the critical national political figures with influence in such a situation are informed. We join the AFT in urging them to use that influence to ask the Saudi government to exhibit compassion.”

The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, D.C., could not be reached for comment Sunday, nor could several of its consulate offices. A representative for the U.S. State Department after-hours number said the department was "checking if we have anything" on the issue and said there would be no response Sunday night.

Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on Arab-Islamic Relations in Michigan, said the situation underscores how “standards for punishing people for dissent in Saudi Arabia is much, much different than here.”

“I don’t know the facts and I don’t know the evidence against him,” said Walid. “But it certainly seems extreme punishment for just expressing a dissenting opinion of the government.”

Walid said Sweikat is among “hundreds of Saudi Arabians who are drawn to Michigan to attend classes at Western Michigan, Grand Valley State, Michigan and University of Michigan.”

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