Families plead with Saudi authorities to return bodies of relatives beheaded in mass execution
Families of 37 people beheaded in a mass execution in Saudi Arabia have still not received their bodies for burial a year after they were killed.
The victims were among a record 184 put to death in the desert kingdom last year, and included three who were children at the time of their alleged offences.
One of these was Mujtaba al-Sweikat, 17, who was detained at Dammam airport as he was about to board a flight to begin his studies at Western Michigan University.
The teenager was one of many youths caught up in pro-democracy demonstrations which erupted in Saudi Arabia during the Arab Spring in 2011-12.
During his interrogation he was tortured by being hung by his hands, beaten on the soles of his feet and stubbed with cigarettes. He also had cold water poured over him in a freezing cell in winter.
It culminated in Mujtaba signing a confession and court documents showed he admitted throwing Molotov cocktails and running a chat group on his Blackberry phone to help organise protests. But his father said he only turned up at two demonstrations, staying no more than five minutes at each.
|Read more: Saudi Arabia's record-shattering executions are mass
murder, and it's getting away with it
The keen sportsman, who had just scored 94 percent in his final high school exams, was sentenced to death in 2016 and three years later, without warning, his family were horrified to discover on social media that his execution had gone ahead.
His mother told The New Arab: "We were awaiting the news that Mujtaba’s death sentence had been revoked because he had been told it was going be lifted, which renewed our hope for his release and his return to us.
"The implementation of the ruling was a deadly shock to us. We found out that he had been executed from social media."
Read more: Saudi Arabia executed 'record number' of people in 2019 despite reform drive
The youngest was Abdulkareem al-Hawaj, who as a 16-year-old along was accused of joining Mujtaba in violent protests in the Shia minority city of Awamiya.
The authorities said their admissions amounted to formation of a ‘terror cell’, but in 2017 the United Nations raised concerns saying there was no evidence apart from confessions obtained under torture.
|The victims were among a record 184 put to death in the desert kingdom last year, and included three who were children at the time of their alleged offences
The human rights charity, Reprieve, is now calling for the bodies of those executed on April 23rd 2019 to be returned to their families so their loved ones can mourn them properly.
Mujtaba’s mother believes the authorities are refusing to do so because they don’t want their graves to become shrines that crowds will flock to.
She said: "It may lead to arrest if one of the religious places where we would do such things was open and we went there to offer condolences, as is normal if a family member dies… The government does not want the type of gatherings that take place during funerals of martyrs [those sentenced to death], which are often in large numbers.
"We are insisting on recovering the body, because receiving your son's body means to receive your son… This is the least possible right that can be given to a family bereaved by the killing of its son. We want to bury him in his land and his hometown in the soil of the land in al-Awamiya where he was raised."
Talking about how she remembers her son, who was just 24-years-old when put to death, she added: "Mujtaba is alive in us and with us. He does not leave us at all. We feel his breath and his spirit hovering around us. We always remember his speech, his words: when he made jokes and when he was serious. We leave his room lit and open it every day and night to feel his presence. His pictures are in the whole house as if he had never left us.
"His things and pictures are more precious than our souls. We have his clothes, I distribute them among my clothes so that I do not lose sight of them.
"The two travel bags, which he took with him to travel and study in the United States of America are still in the same position. They are still in his room. I did not remove his belongings from them."
Earlier this month a report by Reprieve revealed that Saudi Arabia has executed 800 people in five years – twice as many as when King Salman came to the throne in 2015.
|Mujtaba al-Sweikat's parents found out he had been killed on social media. A year later, they still cannot mourn him. That should shock the conscience of the Kingdom's western partners
Maya Foa, director of Reprieve, said: "Saying goodbye and grieving for lost loved ones are profoundly human acts. Yet in Saudi Arabia, a key British ally, prisoners are executed without warning, and their bodies never returned to their families for burial.
"Mujtaba al-Sweikat's parents found out he had been killed on social media. A year later, they still cannot mourn him. That should shock the conscience of the Kingdom's western partners."
This week another report, by Amnesty International, said a record 184 were put to death in the desert kingdom last year, mainly due to a surge in the numbers executed for political opposition.
Ali Adubisi, Director of the European-Saudi Organisation for Human Rights, said: "The tragedy of Mujtaba al-Sweikat is repeated so often in Saudi Arabia that it's become the chorus to a gruesome song. Saudi Arabia arrests a child, tortures them, convicts them, kills them, and buries them in a pauper's grave, all for the crime of speaking out against the government. An unspeakable horror in a functioning democracy; a common refrain in a despotic regime.
"Withholding Mujtaba al-Sweikat's body is about sending a message. If you speak out against the King, he will kill you.
"If your friends or family members speak out against the King, he will deny you your right to mourn them."
Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail.
Follow him on Twitter: @anthonyjharwood