The number of people hanged topped the 63 militants accused of seizing the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, the worst-ever militant attack on the kingdom and Islam’s holiest site, who were executed in January 1980.
It’s unclear why the monarchy chose Saturday for the executions, given that much of the world’s attention is still focused on Russia’s war in Ukraine — and the United States is hoping to lower record-high gasoline costs as global oil prices rise. Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, is allegedly planning a trip to Saudi Arabia next week to discuss oil pricing.
The number of death penalty cases being carried out in Saudi Arabia had dropped during the coronavirus pandemic, though the kingdom continued to behead convicts under King Salman and his assertive son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The executions were announced Saturday by the Saudi Press Agency, which said those executed were “convicted of numerous crimes, including the murdering of innocent men, women, and children.”
Some of them executed, according to the monarchy, were members of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and supporters of Yemen’s Houthi rebels. A Saudi-led coalition has been battling the Iran-backed Houthis since 2015 in neighboring Yemen in an effort to restore the internationally recognized government to power.
Saudi Arabians, Yemenis, and Syrians were among the victims of the executions. The location of the executions was not disclosed in the report.
“The accused were provided with the right to an attorney and were guaranteed their full rights under Saudi law during the judicial process, which found them guilty of committing multiple heinous crimes that left a large number of civilians and law enforcement officers dead,” the Saudi Press Agency said.
“The kingdom will continue to take a strict and unwavering stance against terrorism and extremist ideologies that threaten the stability of the entire world,” the report added. There was no mention of how the prisoners were executed, though Saudi Arabian death row inmates are typically beheaded.
An announcement by Saudi state television described those executed as having “followed the footsteps of Satan” in carrying out their crimes.
International criticism of the executions followed immediately.
“The world should know by now that when Mohammed bin Salman promises reform, bloodshed is bound to follow,” said Soraya Bauwens, deputy director of the London-based advocacy group Reprieve.
The director of the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights, Ali Adubusi, claimed that some of those executed had been tortured and had been put on trials “carried out in secret.”
“These executions are the opposite of justice,” he said.
The country’s most recent mass execution occurred in January 2016, when 47 people were murdered, including a prominent opposition Shiite imam who had rallied protests in the kingdom.
In a mass execution across the country in 2019, the monarchy decapitated 37 Saudi citizens, the majority of whom were minority Shiites, for claimed terrorism-related crimes.
As a message to others, it also publicly attached the severed corpse and skull of a convicted terrorist to a pole.
While rare, such crucifixions following execution do occur in the kingdom.
Activists such as Ali al-Ahmed of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in the United States and Democracy for the Arab World Now believe that around three dozen of those killed on Saturday were also Shiites. The Saudi statement, on the other hand, made no mention of the religions of those killed.
Shiites have long complained of being treated as second-class citizens, especially in the kingdom’s oil-rich east. Shiite executions have sparked regional unrest in the past. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia continues to hold diplomatic discussions with its Shiite regional adversary Iran in an attempt to defuse years of hostility.
Over the mass execution, sporadic protests erupted Saturday night in Bahrain, a Shiite-majority island state run by a Sunni monarchy, a Saudi ally.
The capture of the Grand Mosque in 1979 remains a watershed episode in the oil-rich kingdom’s history.
A group of ultra-conservative Saudi Sunni extremists stormed the Grand Mosque, which houses the cube-shaped Kaaba, which Muslims pray to five times a day. They demanded that the Al Saud royal family abdicate. A two-week siege that followed resulted in the deaths of 229 people. Wahhabism, an ultraconservative Islamic belief, was quickly adopted by the kingdom’s rulers.
Crown Prince Mohammed has gradually liberalized life in the kingdom since gaining power, opening movie theaters, letting women to drive, and defanging the country’s once-feared religious police. However, US intelligence agencies believe the crown prince ordered the assassination and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi while also ordering Yemeni airstrikes that killed hundreds of people.
The crown prince mentioned the death penalty in excerpts from an interview with The Atlantic magazine, saying that a “large percentage” of executions had been postponed due to the payment of so-called “blood money” settlements to mourning families.
“Well about the death penalty, we got rid of all of it, except for one category, and this one is written in the Quran, and we cannot do anything about it, even if we wished to do something, because it is clear teaching in the Quran,” According to a translation later published by the Saudi-owned satellite news channel Al-Arabiya, the prince said.
“If someone killed someone, another person, the family of that person has the right, after going to the court, to apply capital punishment, unless they forgive him. Or if someone threatens the life of many people, that means he has to be punished by the death penalty.”
He added: “Regardless if I like it or not, I don’t have the power to change it.”
In other news, the Saudi Arabian government published new laws on Friday that allow women to obtain passports and to travel freely, ending a longstanding guardianship policy that gave men control over women.
These changes could have a significant impact on Saudi women’s rights. Women have long been accused of being treated like minors in the legal system, which requires them to have consent from a man to obtain a passport or travel abroad. It is most often the son or father of a woman’s guardian who is that woman’s male guardian.
Saudis celebrated the changes on Twitter, posting memes showing people running to the airport with luggage and hailing the crown prince.
Conservatives, however, also voiced opposition to the changes, posting videos of senior Saudi clerics arguing for guardianship laws in the past.
The decrees also allow women to register marriages, divorces, and births as well as receive official documents. Legal guardianship of children can also be conferred upon fathers or mothers.
Nice to see them becoming a little more progressive.