BEIRUT — Every two weeks, Zakiah al-Bakheet would visit the same library in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, punch in a number on a fax machine and feed in the same piece of paper: a letter addressed to the Saudi state security agency demanding that it return what's left of her husband.

She’d listed what she wants back: her husband’s belongings from his time in prison; more than 1,000 books that belonged to him; bank documents that were taken from their house. But most of all, she wants the return of his corpse.

“I do not care if it takes a billion ages,” she said in a recent interview, before the coronavirus outbreak put much of the kingdom under lockdown and disrupted her efforts. “I want to bury him in a place that suits him, not like someone whose identity is unknown, or like someone who’s committed an ugly crime.”

Saudi Arabia beheaded Abbas al-Hassan a year ago, after convicting him on treason and other charges in a trial that human rights groups say was deeply flawed. He was killed as part of a mass execution of 37 prisoners, and the government refused to turn over at least 33 of the bodies, ignoring repeated pleas from the families and instead burying the corpses itself.

The government has not publicly explained why it refuses to return the bodies. The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment except to say it was reviewing the request.

But human rights activists and family members say they suspect it’s because all 33 of those cases involve men from Saudi Arabia’s minority Shiite Muslim community, which has a fraught relationship with the government. Public funerals could turn into protests. Graves could turn into shrines for dissent.

“Not returning bodies is part of the [Saudi] cycle of persecution of the community,” said Ali Adubisi, who founded the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR), a human rights group based in Europe that has compiled a list of those whose corpses have been withheld.

From the start of 2016 through the end of 2019, at least 84 Saudi Shiite men were executed or killed in raids by Saudi security forces, according to ESOHR. None of their 84 families has received a body.

“Refusing to return the bodies of executed men shows the contempt Saudi Arabia’s rulers have for basic humanity and the rule of law,” said Harriet McCulloch, deputy director of Reprieve, a London-based human rights group that has been working closely with ESOHR. “They violate international law and Islamic law when it suits them, and clearly believe they can do so with impunity.”

The United Nations protested the Saudi decision to execute Hassan, a businessman in the export-import trade, and rejected his conviction, saying it was based “on trials that allegedly did not meet fair trial and due process guarantees, including allegations of confessions obtained under torture.”

Until a month ago, Bakheet had repeatedly called and visited various government agencies and prisons, in addition to faxing, in the hope that someone would help her retrieve her husband’s body. During a call four months ago, she was told it couldn’t be returned because it had been buried for eight months and decomposed.

“Just open his coffin: We will take the responsibility of opening and digging up the grave, and of moving him and burying him in a place that befits him and holding a funeral that suits him,” she says. “I just want them to tell me where he’s buried.”

'A sign of intolerance'

Saudi Arabia is a Sunni-majority kingdom that holds to an austere form of Islam, and many hard-line Sunnis view Shiite Muslims as heretics. Shiites have long complained of marginalization by the government, though Saudi officials insist they have taken steps to ease the disaffection, by reaching out to Shiite community leaders and clerics in recent years.

But Shiites have also been viewed with suspicion by the government and many Sunnis as sympathizers with — or even spies for — Iran, the world’s largest Shiite country and Saudi Arabia’s regional rival. The two countries have backed opposing forces in the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars and compete for influence elsewhere in the region, for instance in Iraq and Lebanon, fueling the Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions that afflict the Middle East.

The divide between the two Middle Eastern countries widened significantly in 2016, when Saudi Arabia executed four Shiites for political activism — including Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, a revered cleric. Nimr had grown prominent five years earlier when he emerged as a leading figure in anti-government protests in the kingdom’s Shiite-majority Eastern Province.

Fury erupted, not only among Saudi Shiites but also in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain, all of which have significant Shiite populations. Nimr’s body was not returned to his family.

“If they had released Nimr’s body, all Shiite areas would have gone out [to the street],” said Adubisi, who himself hails from Eastern Province and was formerly a political detainee in Saudi Arabia.

“And tombs,” he said, “often become places to visit, often inspire the community, inspire resilience, inspire resistance.”

Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, said the kingdom’s strict form of Islam, which considers the reverence for graves and shrines a form of idolatry, could partly explain the government’s refusal to turn over bodies. Shiite graves could become places where people gather and say prayers for the dead, Coogle said.

But beyond that, he said, “maybe they’re concerned that [the graves] . . . would perhaps become sites of gathering, and potentially further protests.” He added, “At the end of the day, a lot of this is just a sign of intolerance towards the Shia community in Saudi Arabia.”

'I wear his boots sometimes'

Some families have despaired of ever getting back the bodies of executed relatives. The family of Haidar al-Laif, executed last year at the same time as Hassan, does not see the point in trying.

“The family did not get any response and did not benefit from so-called official bodies during his detention,” said Zahraa al-Nimr, Laif’s niece, who now lives in Iran. “Despite there being no evidence that condemns him, he was executed based on confessions that were extracted from him under torture.”

So his family expects no better result after his death.

“This does not, at all, mean that the family does not want to receive his body,” she said. We “are demanding they deliver his body, and the bodies of the rest of the martyrs, so we can find out his fate and bury him, for to honor the dead is to bury them.”

Bakheet’s days, however, are consumed with thoughts of how to retrieve her husband’s body. Hassan had told her that if anything happened to him, she should take their four children abroad and apply for political asylum. But Bakheet said she can’t: “As long as they have not handed me his body, I cannot leave.”

Her voice grows strong every time she speaks of her plans should she retrieve his body. “I’m going to throw an honorary party. He is a martyr, and the only thing that suits him is an honorary party, an honorary funeral.”

Other times, when remembering Hassan, Bakheet’s voice trembles. Words get caught in her throat. Silences abound.

“I miss hearing his beautiful voice. I wear his boots sometimes. I feel like my feet can touch his feet.” Her raspy voice pauses, for a while. Then, in a small voice: “I still feel that he is here.”

Bakheet said the government decision to keep the bodies aims in part to “torture the families, even after their loved ones are killed. You’ve killed this person. Why don’t you return him to his family? Why do you exacerbate their pain?”

But Bakheet also believes the government holds on to the bodies because of fear. Returning a corpse, she said, “will get international recognition and raise awareness about the cause and the amount of unfairness. [That] would mean the Saudi government has been defeated. And they can’t show that they’ve been defeated.”