A controversial religious figure from the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, Nimr al-Nimr, has called over the past few years to combat corruption and injustice in a clear sign to Gulf leaders, before going on to urge others to fight the ruling family in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. In one of his sermons he said, “We do not want anyone who kills our sons. Our wish is to overthrow all forms of injustice and despotism, to choose our rulers and for our children to live securely and safely, with freedom of sect and politics.”
The sheikh, imprisoned in Saudi Arabia since July 2012, described the succession of rule among Arab regimes in another sermon as being, “illegitimate for what gives the House of Saud the power to inherit the throne? The House of Saud and Khalifa are mere collaborators with and pawns of the British and their cohorts.” He further explained that those who oppose the rulers are typically considered to have committed a heinous crime and are doomed to prison and death. He added, “It is our right, and the right of the Bahraini people, and all people everywhere, to choose our leaders and demand that rule by succession be done away with as it contradicts our religion.”
Throughout the years, Nimr has been a source of anxiety for the authorities in Saudi Arabia because of his blatant challenge of the regime and his frankness in making his demands and criticism known. He has been known to describe the authorities as corrupt, heretic transgressors. His sermons and Friday prayers have prompted questions and pressure many times before, however, this all culminated in July 2012 when the relationship between Nimr and the authorities changed. He was pursued by car before being arrested, sustaining a bullet wound to his leg.
The government spokesperson at the time announced that “a person attempting to cause strife,” as he described him, had been arrested in the al-Awamiyah municipality. This person is known as Nimr NImr al-Nimr. The speaker explained that, “Nimr and others with him tried to resist security officers and fired shots at a security patrol while he attempted to flee. He was dealt with as the situation dictated. Police arrested him after he was shot in the leg and then moved to the hospital for treatment and to finish legal procedures.”
His younger brother, Mohammad al-Nimr, denies the preceding account in a statement to As-Safir, saying that, “the exchange of gunfire described by the Saudi Ministry of the Interior is a lie that cannot be tolerated. The ministry should not be spreading such hearsay. Its place, position and responsibility require neutrality and fairness. Sheikh Nimr was alone in his car, and everyone knows that he does not carry or use a weapon. He has always called for peace and nonviolence. For these reasons, the ministry’s account just does not add up.”
Regarding his brother’s wanted status, Mohammad al-Nimr said, “Sheikh Nimr was wanted after the events in al-Baqi cemetery in Medina in 2009. He did not respond to state security, however, as he does not recognize their right to meet with him. Nevertheless, he was placed under strict observation and he and his family were prevented from accessing services. His arrest transpired in a despicable manner by the Ministry of the Interior whose role is meant to protect and maintain peace, not to incite such as it did in Nimr’s arrest.”
He further explains, “I received the news of my brother’s arrest while I was in my office. I went to where the event had taken placed and saw his blood on the ground and his car smashed into the wall. There was no blood in the car, so he was clearly wounded after his arrest and being removed from the car. His car, and not any of the patrol cars, had crashed into the wall, further proving the aggression was carried out on the ministry’s part.
“We had been anticipating his arrest at any time. He is a strong-worded man in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and we had grown accustomed to the fact that the authorities here would not tolerate him,” says Mohammad al-Nimr.
Currently, Sheikh Nimr is “in the Security Forces Prison Hospital in Riyadh. His health is relatively stable after three bullets were removed from his thigh. He is still unable to walk six months after his arrest and his legal status remains unclear. No formal accusations were brought against him and he was not referred to any sort of trial. He only received accusations from the public prosecutor during the investigation, however, there was no sort of executive procedure carried out against him. He is in good spirits mentally, as he continues to believe in the path he follows and realizes full well what will happen to him. He has prepared himself to be arrested for a long time.”
As for the accusations brought against him during the investigation, they are “based on his political activity, such as allegations that he incited demonstration, insulted the country’s rulers, called for secession, and demanded the rights of families beginning with reforms in the regional court and releasing detainees,” according to Nimr’s brother. He went on to explain, “Sheikh Nimr’s call for secession of the eastern region from the rest of the kingdom was in reaction to the 2009 al-Baqi events. He pushed for the issue to be resolved, however it was not completely resolved. This spurred upheaval in the east, in spite of Nimr’s numerous attempts to settle the situation following the authorities’ inaction. During one of his sermons, he called for secession so long as it guarantees and protects the dignity of his followers. The reality is, Sheikh Nimr as a person and the religious school to which he belongs does not condone secession. His school calls for the unification of the Islamic Ummah, not division. His education, personality, and philosophy come from this principle.”
In response to the accusations of inciting violence and sectarianism, Mohammad al-Nimr replied, “Certainly, my brother is not calling for violence. Quite the contrary, he condemns violence, calling both in public and private to not use weapons or violence. There is absolutely no proof that he has practiced or promoted violence, however, there is an abundance of evidence refuting these claims. The confusion here lies in the kingdom’s interpretation of peaceful demonstrations as violence and terrorism. For this reason he is accused of inciting violence.” He added, “As for the claims that he promotes sectarianism, they are completely false and unfounded.”
Nimr has been labeled the motivating force behind the protest movement that has broken out in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia nearly two years ago. His brother continues, “If this was what this was all about, the authorities in Saudi Arabia and around the world should respect a person capable of moving tens of thousands of people and offer that person direction in his efforts.” He continues, “Nimr is very effective, however the truth of this all goes back to the fact that there are many political, humanitarian and economic problems in the region that led to this upheaval. These problems need to be properly addressed rather than making Sheikh Nimr a scapegoat for these failures.”
Mohammad described the protest movement’s demands as “nationalistic, pushing for reform across the country. What is going on in the region is a mere fragment of the reform movement emerging across Saudi Arabia, with commotion beginning to stir in areas that have not yet been noticed. The demands center on fighting administrative and economic corruption, nepotism, securing freedoms and rights for women, and equitable distribution of national wealth. These demands are no different than those seen across the Arab world.
At the end, Mohammad al-Nimr demanded that the authorities in Saudi Arabia release his brother and give him the freedom to move and travel as he pleases, and to lead Friday prayers and give sermons. He further demanded the release of all prisoners in the kingdom, beginning with those forgotten in the Eastern Province, Jedda, al-Qassim and al-Ahsa in hopes that the moment will come when prisons are emptied of those detained for their opinions.