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Lionel Messi urged to intervene in case of youth facing Saudi death sentence

The family of a young man facing a death sentence in Saudi Arabia after being arrested aged 15 have written to Lionel Messi — the country’s new tourism ambassador — appealing for him to intervene in the case.

Mohammed al Faraj was arrested in 2017 for alleged “crimes” against the Saudi regime and prosecutors have asked for the maximum penalty, though his family say he was tortured into a confession.

The move to contact Messi is another indication of how Saudi Arabia’s drive to use sport to enhance its reputation may be backfiring. This year, Lewis Hamilton spoke out after receiving a letter from Abdullah al-Howaiti, who was arrested aged 14 and sentenced to death at 17.

The letter to him states: “We respectfully ask for your attention and for the opportunity to raise the plight of our beloved Mohammed, who was taken from us when he was just a child. As Saudi Arabia’s tourism ambassador, you have a position of great influence. Will you use it to save the life of a young man?”

The family said Mohammed, who was out bowling with friends when he was arrested, was taken to an adult prison, where he was interrogated and tortured. The crimes he is accused of relate to attending demonstrations. The court has still not handed down a verdict but the prosecutor has demanded “the highest possible discretionary punishment”, the letter says.

“Prison guards beat and kicked him, and shackled his arms above his head for hours at a time. How can they treat a child in this heartless and brutal way?” the letter adds.

The human rights organisation, Reprieve, is working with the family and said Saudi Arabia’s is using sport to launder its reputation.

Reprieve’s director, Maya Foa, said: “Saudi Arabia’s rulers are investing aggressively in sport at a time when they are on track to execute more people in a calendar year than ever before. That’s not a coincidence. They killed 81 men in a single day and when the grand prix came to town two weeks later the sponsors and most of the drivers pretended it didn’t happen. By speaking up for human rights while he was there, Lewis Hamilton showed it doesn’t have to be that way.”

“Mohammed bin Salman [the Saudi Crown Prince] wants to be mentioned in the same breath as elite athletes and the global brands that sponsor sport, not the children his regime tortures and sentences to death or the pro-democracy protesters it executes for ‘disobedience to the ruler’. We mustn’t let sport distract us from the blood-stained record of this Saudi regime.”

Read the full story in The Times.