What happens to protesters arrested in Saudi Arabia?

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most prolific executers. But the authorities claim to be reforming, even as execution rates skyrocket.

The reality is that children are facing illegal death sentences and torture is being used to extract false ‘confessions’. The truth is that the government is cracking down on any form of opposition with brutal ruthlessness.

Here, we expose what’s going on in Saudi Arabia right now using three cases we’re currently working on, and one case of a juvenile protester who was executed along with 46 others in January 2016. Their names are Ali al-Nimr, Abdullah al-Zaher, Dawood al-Marhoon and Ali al-Ribh

1. Arrested for ‘protest-related offences’

The list of ‘crimes’ that have led to a death sentence is long, varied and shocking.

For 17 year old Ali al-Nimr, they included inviting others to join a protest using his mobile phone and showing protesters how to give first aid. For 17 year old Dawood, it was attending an Arab Spring demonstration. For 15 year old Abdullah, the charges ranged from ‘harbouring’ protesters to chanting slogans. He was shot by Saudi security forces, then beaten and taken into detention.

The security forces came to arrest 18 year old Ali al-Ribh at his school. He was accused of the ‘crime’ of calling for political reform in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is a country where taking to the streets or even to Facebook can lead to arrest and execution. Despite its promise of openness and progress, the Government continues to crack down on peaceful protest using the death penalty and its notorious ‘Specialized Criminal Court’ as instruments of repression.

2. Tortured to extract false “confession”

The security forces gave Dawood a blank document and brutally tortured him until he signed it. They wanted him to spy on protesters, but he refused. That blank document would later contain his ‘confession’ and be used in court to sentence him to death.

Torture, even of children, is all too common in Saudi Arabia – particularly in cases relating to protests.

To extract a confession from Abdullah, the security forces beat him with iron rods. He was tortured so badly that his face remains disfigured. They denied him access to a lawyer and his family, and forced him to sign a paper that he had not read.

The ‘confessions’ extracted through torture are then used to secure death sentences.

3. No fair trial

Those tortured into signing a false ‘confession’ can then expect their confession to be used as evidence against them during a secret trial. This may be the only evidence against them. They are often denied access to a lawyer.

Ali al-Nimr was held for two years before he even got a trial. He was denied all contact with a lawyer the whole time. When the trial finally commenced, the Saudi authorities didn’t even inform Ali of the charges against him until half way through the proceedings. The only evidence brought against him was a “confession” extract through torture.

4. The wait

Once found guilty and sentenced to death, prisoners will not be given an execution date in advance – the king has final say on deciding when an execution is carried out. Instead, they wait on death row, knowing that at any moment, without warning, they might be executed.

This is a particularly cruel form of torture, and makes it more difficult for Reprieve to intervene to prevent executions – it’s harder to raise the alarm if we don’t know when an execution will take place. The authorities will often delay a planned execution if there is an international outcry, only to try again if the attention decreases. They often execute more people over the holiday season, when international audiences are less likely to be paying attention.

Ali, Dawood and Abdullah were arrested in 2012. Every day of the past 5 years could have been their last. They could be executed next week, next month or next year, and our work to keep them alive never stops.

5. Denied chance to say goodbye to their families

Executions take place without any notice. Saudi authorities even deny families the opportunity to say a final goodbye, and will not notify them of when an execution has been carried out.

In January 2016, Ali al-Ribh was executed along with 46 others in a mass execution, but the authorities did not inform his family in advance. His parents only found out their son had been executed after reading about it in the Saudi media.

6. Publicly executed 

There are several recorded methods of execution in Saudi Arabia, including firing squad, beheading and stoning. Beheading, which is sometimes carried out in public, is the most widely used method of execution.

There is no guarantee that the body of execution victims will be returned to their family. In the case of Ali al-Ribh, the authorities refused to return his body to his family and continue to keep the location of his grave a secret.

Secrecy is the biggest weapon that the Saudi authorities have

The Saudi authorities want the world to ignore these human rights abuses so they can continue in secret. They will not stop if they think no one cares, but they do respond to international outcry – and that’s how we can make a difference.


Saudi Arabia has sentenced fourteen peaceful protesters – including a young disabled man and two juveniles – to death.

Saudi Arabia claims to be modernising and reforming under its Vision 2030 programme. But any vision of the future, however grand, is fundamentally undermined by continuing to execute peaceful protesters and children. If Saudi Arabia is to have a bright future, these young men must be alive to see it.

Can you sign our petition and call on King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed to stop these executions?

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