Saudi Arabia's beheading of 37 Saudi citizens Tuesday included a young man who had been accepted for admission to Western Michigan University seven years ago.
Mujtaba al-Sweikat was 17 when he was detained at King Fahd International Airport in 2012, according to the Detroit Free Press. Al-Sweikat reportedly attended a pro-democracy rally at the same time as the Arab Spring, which led to his arrest, the Free Press reported. He was reportedly imprisoned, beaten, tortured, kept in solitary confinement and not allowed to see his family.
"The violent killing of Mutjaba al-Sweikat is disturbing," U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., said in an online statement. "Mutjaba had a bright future ahead of him and Michigan was prepared to welcome him as a student. Instead, he faced inhumane torture and pain ultimately leading to his execution.
"Every human, regardless of where they may be in the world, should have the right to speak openly without fear of persecution or death. Right now, I stand in unity with Mutjaba's family and friends. I will never stop speaking up for all who promote free speech and due process around the world," Dingell's statement said.
Saudi dissident Ali Al-Ahmed, who runs the Gulf Institute in Washington, said 34 of those executed were Shiites, a religious minority in Sunni-led Saudi Arabia.
'This is political'
Al-Ahmed described Tuesday's executions as a politically motivated message to Iran. Saudi Arabia and Iran do not have diplomatic relations and compete for dominance in the Middle East because of religion, geopolitics and oil production.
"This is political,'' he said. "They didn't have to execute these people, but it's important for them to ride the American anti-Iranian wave."
Critics say the Saudi kingdom and its Sunni-led Arab allies have been bolstered by their relationship with the United States, which has been pressuring Iran's Shiite clerical leadership to behave according to its expectations.
The Saudi Interior Ministry said those executed had been convicted of charges that included adopting extremist ideologies, forming terrorist cells to spread chaos and provoke sectarian strife, attacking security installations with explosives, killing a number of security officers, and cooperating with enemy organizations against the interests of the country.
It said the individuals had been found guilty under Saudi law and ordered executed by the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh, which handles terrorism trials.
The statement was carried on state-run media, including the Saudi news channel al-Ekhbariya. It opened with a verse from the Quran that condemns attacks that aim to create strife and disharmony and warns of great punishment for those who carry out such attacks.
The human rights group Amnesty International said the individuals were convicted in "sham trials'' that relied on confessions extracted through torture.
Saudi students offer views
In a dissertation written by Molly Heyn in 2013 at Western Michigan University, some male Saudi students discussed their views about geopolitics after studying in the U.S. as international students.
"Freedom is a big thing because if [Americans] see something wrong in the government or anything, [they] can talk," a student identified in the dissertation as Fahed said. Americans "can go on television and speak ... [they] can change something ... it doesn't matter what it is, they can change it."
A student identified as Mansoor in the dissertation said he learned about his own country while studying in the U.S.
"I met international students and I learned about Saudis. I spoke with Saudis from different parts of Saudi and from different families. It made me realize different cultures and like styles of life," Mansoor said. "I think more about things and think from others' perspectives. It makes me more aware of the differences and there are people from different cultures and that some people did not get a chance to see a different culture, to see a different people."
In 2017, when faculty at Western Michigan were made aware of al-Sweikat's imprisonment, they issued a statement, according to the Free Press.
"As academics and teachers, we take pride in defending the rights of all people, wherever they may be in the world, to speak freely and debate openly without hindrance or fear. We publicly declare our support for Mujtaba and the 13 others facing imminent execution. No one should face beheading for expressing beliefs in public protests," their statement read.
The statement continued: "Mujtaba showed great promise as an applicant for English language and pre-finance studies. He was arrested at the airport gates as he readied to board a plane to visit our campus. We were unaware that at the moment we were ready to welcome him, he was locked away, beaten and tortured and made to 'confess' to acts for which he was condemned to death."
Source: Voice of America