On March 12, the Saudi Arabian government executed 81 people in the largest mass execution in the nation’s history. Those who were executed were convicted of crimes ranging from terrorism and extremist group membership to participating in violent anti-government protests. The action has drawn criticism from international human rights organizations.
A report from NPR notes that there have already been 92 executions in Saudi Arabia in 2022. The number of individuals executed over the weekend surpassed the 1980 executions of the 63 militants who captured the Grand Mosque in Mecca, in 1979. Those put to death on Saturday included 73 Saudis, seven Yemenis and one Syrian.
A Saudi press agency has stated that each of the condemned was provided access to attorneys during the judicial process. It went on to claim that the accused were convicted of “heinous crimes” which took the lives of civilians and police. The most common method of execution in Saudi Arabia is beheading.
The action has drawn a harsh reproach from Amnesty International, whose Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Lynn Maalouf, said in a statement:
“This execution spree is all the more chilling in light of Saudi Arabia’s deeply flawed justice system, which metes out death sentences following trials that are grossly and blatantly unfair, including basing verdicts on ‘confessions’ extracted under torture or other ill-treatment.”
Maalouf went on to call the number of deaths “shocking” and noted the country’s “lack of transparency” in regards to capital punishment. She claimed that the number of trials resulting in capital punishment is always higher than what the Saudi government reports.
Amnesty International says that death sentences have come after questionable or unfair trials in every case they have documented. The human rights organization reports claims of rampant torture of prisoners in detention. These torture sessions proceed with the goal of drawing out a confession whether it is true or not. The false confessions made under duress can influence the verdict even if they are recanted.
They point to two of the men who were executed on Saturday, who were convicted of participating in anti-government protests that turned violent. Both men had reported being tortured while in prison, with one of the men having lost most of his teeth from being repeatedly punched in the face. Neither of the two were allowed medical treatment for the duration of their imprisonment.
Families not informed
Human Rights Watch reports that an analysis of the cases of five of the 41 executed Shia men showed clear violations of due process. Each of the five men claimed his confession was made during torture, and each tried to recant his statement. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch found that family members of the condemned were not informed of the decision, or given an opportunity to say goodbye.
A brother of one of the executed men commented:
“We have no idea how and what time they were killed, how and where they were buried,” he said. “I keep wondering, what were my brother’s last words? Was he buried according to Shia burial rites? Did they pray over his body?”
Capital punishment worldwide
Saudi Arabia’s highest number of executions in a single day comes as much of the world is moving away from capital punishment. A report from TIME notes that 483 people have been executed globally in 2022. While the number seems high for the first three months, it is down 26% from this time of the year in 2019. Compared to 2015, the peak of world executions, it is down by 70%.
In the United States, a group of 56 elected prosecutors recently released a statement calling capital punishment in the United States “broken.” According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the prosecutors wrote:
“… we have all now arrived at the same inexorable conclusion: our country’s system of capital punishment is broken. It is time to work together toward systemic changes that will bring about the elimination of the death penalty nationwide.”