Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, a Saudi pro-democracy protester arrested when he was 17, has been sentenced to a grisly death, and activists fear his crucifixion could take place any day unless authorities step in. Activists say al-Nimr, who is now 21, was tortured into confessing, and United Nations human rights experts have issued a statement urging Saudi Arabia to give him a fair trial. Pope Francis has asked the Saudis to call it off, too, reports Reuters. The UN officials warn that executing people who were children at the time of the offense is "incompatible" with the kingdom's international obligations. A spokeswoman for the human rights group Reprieve tells NBC that the case is an "outrage" and the US and other Saudi allies should not be staying silent over the "utterly unjustified sentence."
Crucifixion is an unusual sentence in Saudi Arabia and activists say the kingdom appears to be trying to send a message to other protesters. "This is not something they do every day," a Reprieve researcher tells the Toronto Star. "The person is beheaded, normally by sword, and then their body is displayed in a public place" on some kind of gallows or cross. "The reason the sentence is quite unusual is that it is used to make an example of people." Al-Nimr is a member of the country's Shiite minority, and his father, who has urged King Salman not to sign the execution order, tells AFP that he fears the sentence could provoke violent clashes. (Saudi Arabia has dramatically stepped up its execution rate this year and is hiring more executioners.)