RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — A young Saudi man was released from prison on Wednesday after spending nearly a decade behind bars in a case that drew international scrutiny because until recently he’d been facing a possible death sentence for protest-related crimes committed as a minor.
Ali al-Nimr’s case also drew attention because his uncle was influential Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed in January 2016 in a mass execution of 47 people in the kingdom. He was an outspoken government critic and a key leader of Shiite protests in eastern Saudi Arabia in 2011 demanding greater rights in the majority Sunni nation and fair treatment.
Iranian protesters attacked Riyadh’s embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad in 2016 in retaliation for the kingdom’s execution of Nimr al-Nimr. Saudi Arabia removed its diplomats from Iran, sparking a sharp downturn in ties between the two Middle Eastern powerhouses. The two nations have been working towards a detente in recent months, and the first direct talks between them took place in early April.
Ali al-Nimr’s death sentence was commuted in February following a royal decree issued last year that ordered an end to the death penalty for crimes committed by minors. The royal decree orders prosecutors to review cases and drop punishments for those who’ve already served the maximum 10 years for crimes committed under the age of 18, although terrorism-related crimes can technically be tried differently.
Al-Nimr had been convicted on charges related to his participation as a minor in Shiite-led protests. He was arrested in 2012 at the age of 16.
Human Rights Watch said his charges included vague accusations of attacking security forces, as well as “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and “repeating some chants against the state.” He was sentenced to death by the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh, which handles terrorism trials.
— Ali AlAhmed (@AliAlAhmed_en) October 27, 2021
In 2014, the court had sentenced al-Nimr to death, as well two others arrested while minors, Dawood al-Marhoun and Abdullah al-Zaher. All three youth from Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority had their death sentences commuted at the same time earlier this year.
The three young men were instead ordered to serve 10 years in prison, with credit for time already served.
Al-Nimr’s father, Mohammed, confirmed his son’s apparent early release on Twitter. A video of a bearded al-Nimr dressed in all white hugging a woman who appears to be his mother upon arrival home circulated widely on social media Wednesday.
Al-Nimr’s father expressed gratitude to God and the family’s supporters, as well as to the king and crown prince in a tweet that included a photo of the two royals.
“Gratitude after God goes to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques for his historic decision in April 2020, which ruled to stop issuing and implementing death sentences against minors,” he wrote. “May God reward him and the crown prince.”