Trump silent on imminent Saudi executions based on problematic confessions

Rights groups urge Trump to intervene on cases they say hinge on coerced confessions and flawed trials

President Donald Trump holds a sword and dances with traditional dancers during a welcome ceremony at Murabba Palace. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
President Donald Trump holds a sword and dances with traditional dancers during a welcome ceremony at Murabba Palace. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

With the fate of 14 men facing execution in Saudi Arabia hanging in the balance, rights groups and anti-death penalty activists are pushing President Donald Trump to speak up.

All 14 defendants are Shia Muslims, an oppressed minority in Saudi Arabia, and were sentenced with the death penalty after being accused of terror-related activities that threaten national security, including killing of security forces and civilians during anti-government protests. But rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch, point out that most of the convictions were based on problematic confessions that the defendants, most of whom are in their twenties, later rejected in court.

But despite pressure from activists, the Trump administration as so far remained silent on their plight.

Maya Foa, the director or UK-based rights group Reprieve, had harsh words for the president, telling ThinkProgress that Trump’s silence on the pending executions is “appalling,” and noted that one of the convicted, Mujtaba al-Sweikat, was a teenager at the time of his arrest. Al-Sweikat was bound for the United States where he hoped to study, but was arrested and sentence to execution by beheading for allegedly attending a protest.


Foa also noted that, “Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross doled out praise to the Kingdom for keeping protesters off the streets during the President’s visit,” referencing Trump’s visit to Riyadh in May. Foa said that Ross and the Trump administration in general are “either oblivious or willfully ignorant of the plight of the young students who had been rounded up at pro-democracy protests, brutally beaten, and sentenced to beheading.”

Zeke Johnson, senior director of programs at Amnesty International USA told ThinkProgress that, “The failure to denounce this mass execution is yet another example of  the Trump administration turning turned a blind eye to the appalling human rights record of the Saudi government.”

The Gulf Arab kingdom continues be among the top executioners in the world. It executed over 150 people in 2016, and has already executed 66 so far this year, according to Amnesty International.

A group of ten Nobel Peace Prize laureates issued a joint statement urging Saudi to stay the executions. And the American Federation of Teachers has also issued pleas for mercy – to the Saudi ambassador and Trump alike. “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 President Randi Weingarten said in a statement last month.

How much sway the president could have over Saudi is unknown, although the United States now has an increasingly close relationship with Saudi Arabia.


In response to a ThinkProgress query, the State Department sent an emailed response, saying that it is “aware of the cases” in question and that it regularly raised human rights concerns with Saudi Arabia. On the 14 executions, the State Department spokesperson wrote:

We understand that al-Sweikat has been charged for crimes of violent protest he allegedly committed as a minor.  We call on Saudi Arabia to adhere to the judicial guarantees to which it has obligated itself under international law, including to ensure that no death penalty is imposed in any case involving a defendant who was a minor at the time of the arrest or alleged crime.

We urge the government of Saudi Arabia to respect and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly.

But Trump has yet to make a comment on the impending executions, a disappointment for those hoping his visit to Riyadh would yield more than another weapons deal and a Toby Keith concert.

“Trump has a responsibility to stand up against such abuses,” said Foa. “He should immediately intervene by calling on Riyadh to commute these death sentences before they are implemented. If he doesn’t, the President risks emboldening Riyadh to carry out yet another round of protest-related executions.”