The young Saudi who could be executed at any time

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What's popular and why

image copyrightTwitter
image captionActivists are highlighting the case of Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr, who has been sentenced to death by crucifixion

Activists are organising online to support a young man sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia, but the conversation within the country is split along sectarian lines.

Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr could be beheaded at any time, and now activists are rallying to highlight his case online. He's accused of a variety of crimes against the state, all stemming from protests he took part in against the Saudi government. His appeals against a death sentence are exhausted.

Al-Nimr was accused of taking part of anti-government protests in the eastern part of the country in 2011 (involving the country's Shia Muslim minority and sometimes called "Saudi's Secret Uprising") and was arrested the following year. State media later reported he was found guilty of a long list of crimes including sedition, breaking allegiance to the king, rioting, using petrol bombs against security patrols, robbing a pharmacy and more. He was 17 years old at the time of his arrest. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Saudi Arabia is a signatory, forbids capital punishment for offences committed by people under the age of 18. UN human rights experts also say al-Nimr was tortured and did not receive a fair trial.

So why he is he trending on Twitter now? It was sparked over the weekend by American comic Bill Maher, who is well known for controversial views on a range of subjects, including Islam and religion. On Friday on his show Real Time on HBO, he held a discussion about Ahmed Mohammed, the Texas boy who was questioned by police after bringing a clock into school. Maher defended the actions of the police and school authorities, and in a widely-shared tweet the next day he mentioned the incident again and gave a link to a story about al-Nimr's case:

image copyrightTwitter

That kicked off the conversation, but the trend really spiked big on Wednesday. Al-Nimr's name has now been mentioned 15,000 times in English and 21,000 times in Arabic over the past few days, with liberal and secular activists and human rights organisations leading the charge. "Our leading ally in the region crucify government critics," tweeted one British blogger. "Wake up world." Under Saudi law, the punishment of crucifixion to which al-Nimr was sentenced is actually a beheading, followed by the public display of the body. Others online linked the case with the recent appointment of a Saudi ambassador as chair of a panel of independent experts on the UN Human Rights Council. "Saudi Arabia chosen to head UN's human's rights panel & yet they're about to behead 21yr activist," one user commented.

Another big topic of discussion online is the sectarian aspect of the case. Al-Nimr is the nephew of a prominent Shia cleric, who has also been sentenced to death. Eastern Province, where the protests occurred, has a Shia majority that has long complained of marginalisation at the hands of the Sunni ruling family. Inside Saudi Arabia, many Shia are expressing support for Ali al-Nimr, while some Sunnis are defending the handling of the case.

"We should execute any Shia who offends us," said one Sunni. "They should be grateful that we are letting them stay in Saudi Arabia." But a Shia Twitter user commented: "Where are the religious clerics calling for national unity? Wouldn't the death of this boy hurt this so-called unity?"

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